The biggest news in men's professional tennis recently occurred over a two-week span and involved a single player. Andre Agassi, whose bald head, startled expression and thick brows make him the world's most recognizable American men's player, lost in the first round of the Grand Prix Hassan II, a minor tournament held in Casablanca, to a player with a world ranking only slightly higher than the Scrabble points his name would earn. Nenad Zimonjic of Serbia, 339th in the world, has never won a pro tournament. Then, this past Monday, in the opening round of the French Open, Agassi lost again, in straight sets, to an unknown Frenchman playing his first match on the pro tour.
Agassi will win again. But the loss is one more sign that the 34-year-old native of Las Vegas, who has been playing professional tennis for more than half his life, will be looking for new work on the master's and exhibition circuits sooner rather than later. And that's another piece of bad news for the game of tennis. With his celebrity marriage to Steffi Graf, his high-profile endorsements, engaging personality and multiple career resurrections, Agassi is the last of a dying breed in tennis: the interesting men's player.
Evidence? A couple of weeks ago, Sports Illustrated calculated which athletes earned the most money every year. It is telling that, of the top fifty, only Agassi, at No. 8, hails from men's tennis. Two other American tennis players made the list, but no other men. The Williams sisters -- Serena at No. 23 and Venus at No. 41 -- were more marketable than any other U.S. man.
This is hardly news to the alphabet soup of organizations responsible for the sport's welfare, and earlier this month, the United States Tennis Association, the largest of the groups, announced that it wasn't going to wait for any more bad news. The USTA declared that it will spend $10 million on a new marketing blitz designed to attract people to tennis. More than 3,000 tennis facilities nationally -- and about forty in the Denver metro area -- have been designated "Tennis Welcome Centers," places (even private clubs) that will allow anyone to walk in and play, usually at cut rates.
The campaign faces an uphill battle, however. The truth is that tennis has been on a losing streak for a generation, and the game has suffered plenty of glitches since the glory days of Jimmy Carter and disco.
With the development of ever larger and more powerful racquets, the men's game, especially, has become excruciatingly boring to watch, an entire football game of off-tackle runs. Gone are the days when long rallies and skillful shot combinations earned points. Today you're more likely to see a blazing service ace (140 mph!?), a quick winner blasting past a slower opponent, or an early error than you are a series of well-played strokes. The result: At its top level, men's tennis is unrecognizable to the weekend player. Never has the gap between the game played by the pros and that played by the club player been greater.
The top players, too, are bland machines, their rough edges honed into hospital corners by PR professionals fearful of damaging lucrative endorsement opportunities. Interchangeable boys barely beyond their teens, they try to stand out by substituting style for personality. Making distinctions even more difficult is the fact that no single player since Pete Sampras retired has been able to dominate the game. The No. 1 designation switches monthly (and, on occasion, even weekly). Compelling and ongoing rivalries such as those forged two decades by McEnroe, Borg, Connors, Nastase and Lendl are non-existent.
The lethargy at the top has had a trickle-down effect, and in recent years the game has withered. In the past decade, says the National Sporting Goods Association, tennis has been a loser. The number of players has plunged 42 percent, according to the NSGA, and apparel sales have dropped off 31 percent over the same time period. Ball sales are dead.
The USTA has worked overtime refuting manufacturers' claims, reporting optimistically that 24 million people played tennis last year, up from 20 million in 1995. But the numbers don't hold up under inspection. For instance, of those 24 million, only four and a half million describe themselves as frequent players -- nearly a million less than in 1995. More people may be trying tennis -- but they're giving it up quickly, too.
In many ways, tennis is a game stuck in a time warp. It is still overwhelmingly white (85 percent of new players) and, increasingly, old. In 1995, 8 percent of all players were over the age of fifty. Today, one in five frequent players is over that hill, a doddering gang of lobbers and dinkers. The hottest new court surface is one similar to those used on tracks -- spongy and forgiving, to inspire slower rallies and to coddle aging limbs.
Locally, the problem is similar. In 1993, the Colorado Tennis Association reported 19,500 members. By 1998 that number had dropped to 17,800. Although it has rebounded since then to about the same levels as a decade ago, and league participation is strong, the demographics remain more Highlands Ranch than Park Hill.
"Desperation is a decent way to describe it," says John Benson, a former professional player, coach and member of the Colorado Tennis Hall of fame. "There's a solid core of tennis players who play a lot. But the sport has really dropped off in casual play."
In the past couple of years, Heather Ridge, in Aurora, and the Tennis Center, in Fort Collins, have bulldozed their courts. Whereas homeowner associations once demanded four or more courts for their common areas, Adam Burbary, who manages facilities for such areas, says most new developments now ask for only two -- when they ask for any courts at all.
Private clubs, especially, have felt the pinch. The Evergreen Fitness and Tennis Center saw its membership drop from 300 to 200 over the past couple of years, although it has since climbed back to about 250. The Denver Tennis Club, which once boasted a five-year waiting list, now operates well below the club's 800-member capacity. Worse, it has almost no members between the ages of twenty and forty. The typical member is more worried about avoiding strokes than practicing them.
Some of the sport's problems were probably inevitable; corrections were long overdue. No one buys tennis outfits anymore, because court clothes have become more casual. Raj rules demanding fastidious whites -- stupid-looking and snooty besides -- have rightly gone the way of small wooden racquets, grass courts and long trousers. (A show of hands: Who doesn't like Serena Williams's hot pants?)
To retailers' continuing dismay, however, tennis players have remained stingy, even with the new fashions. "I'll go play golf and spend $100 for greens fees and a new shirt, and I'll pay $6 for golf balls without blinking an eye," says Burbary. "But I won't open a second can of tennis balls for a new set."
The sport seems out of step socially, too. Tennis has been bypassed by a changing, ever-isolating world. Whereas tennis once served as a community gathering point -- courts were a place to play, watch and socialize for long hours -- the migration into faceless, centerless suburbs mean that today the only reason to visit a court is to rally and then leave. The professionalization of children also has played a role in tennis's demise. Fort Collins's Cliff Buchholz, who has operated tennis clubs and tournaments for four decades in and out of Colorado, notes that a generation ago, a neighborhood's best young players were an inspiration and challenge to other kids. Today, however, kids who show the slightest shred of talent are quickly whisked away to development camps
Perhaps most damaging, however, is that for today's impatient jocks, tennis simply may be too difficult a game, logistically and athletically. Unlike any of the other activities preferred by max-VO?-obsessed baby-boomers, tennis must be arranged. Not only do you need a partner or three to agree to meet at a certain time or place, but they must also be compatible. A tennis match of uneven participants quickly becomes an exercise in frustration, boredom and resentment.
For younger adults, especially, who have only an hour for a workout before it's time to shlep the kids off to daycare or start cooking dinner, keeping up with one's tennis skills can be a huge -- and often insurmountable -- challenge. Anyone who wants to have fun won't find it by playing only once every two or three weeks. "With golf," says Burbary, "you can go to an average or good course and play bad golf and still have fun -- or at least enjoy your walk."
"Tennis is a hard game," says Dan Gray, director of tennis at the Denver Tennis Club. "It's an easy game to give up. It's not like getting on a Lifecycle for forty minutes, or even running five miles."
So how do you make tennis interesting to people who've grown up watching extreme sports and participating in solitary workouts designed to burn the most fat in the least time? "We're in a much more ADD society," admits Andy Zodin, director of tennis at the Monaco Athletic Club. He's started "Rock 'n' Roll Drills," where players run from court to court while listening to loud music. At the Denver Tennis Club, Gray offers "Tenniscize," a combination aerobics and tennis. The goal of both is for members to learn tennis without actually feeling like, well, they're learning tennis or not working up a sufficient sweat.
Other clubs have begun pushing programs that stress getting players playing in less and less time. Meadow Creek Tennis and Fitness Club in Lakewood offers Quick Start. At Evergreen, tennis director Adrian Games promotes USA 1,2,3. "If people do the program, I guarantee they're playing matches after nine weeks," Games promises. One other incentive: the club is offering the program at bargain-basement prices. "We've basically slashed prices to get people in," he admits.
Whatever method local pros are using, it's a far cry from the game's heyday, in the 1970s and '80s. Being a teaching professional -- a career path sometimes associated with deep tans and shallow affairs with middle-aged moms -- has become real work.
"We're having to be much more creative in marketing ourselves," acknowledges Zodin. "Tennis pros used to be order-takers -- you knew that, come summer, you'd have forty hours a week scheduled for lessons. Now my pros have to be a sales force. You have to get on the phone and push. I don't think any of us feel it's just a bunch of low-hanging fruit anymore."
Tired of getting overlooked by jocks everywhere, the USTA recently decided to fight back.
Like car marketers, however, who seldom mention the actual selling point of automobiles, tennis honchos who formulated the organization's new Welcome Center campaign have decided that their best chance lies in appealing to the non-tennis side of tennis. The promotion's new website, for instance, features a picture of Andy Roddick with a backhanded quote of support: "If you are single and looking to meet active people, I definitely would recommend playing tennis." Another section, under the heading "Tennis: How it can give you a stronger mind and body," details the collaboration between the USTA and the Cleveland Clinic Heath Center.
The sport is also trying mightily to go hip. Instead of pushing better overheads, the new promotion stresses how tennis can develop one's core strength and provide benefit to other sports, such as Pilates and skiing. Advertising inserts placed in local and national publications (including the Denver Post) have featured testimonials not from Marat Safin, but from NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon and actress Daisy Fuentes ("To stay beach-fit year-round, I hit the courts"), as well as celebrity photos (Mary-Kate and Ashley at the 2003 U.S. Open).
It was in that spirit this past weekend that a couple hundred people gathered at the south end of Washington Park for a "Tennis Rocks" rally designed to get those teetering on the fence into the game. The courts had been divided into areas for beginner and advanced play, drills and manufacturer demos. On the west side of the complex, an exhibition area had been set up, where local tennis organizations and, oddly, LaMar's Donuts were on display. (The rep explained that he knew a Colorado Tennis Association guy from way back.)
A DJ was on duty, and throughout the morning, he blasted upbeat oldies and chattered announcements at the crowd, giving away prizes from neighborhood businesses and whipping up enthusiasm for the sport. "Don't have a racquet? No problem." At one point, he addressed the Saturday-morning exercisers teeming past the courts -- though he might have been pleading for the future of tennis in general: "Hey! All you walkers, joggers, rollerbladers! Don't pass by! Come join us!"
Everyone seemed to be having fun, but the long-term effect of the day, as well as the USTA's new multimillion-dollar enticement program, won't be known for some time. Deb, a fiftyish woman on the beginner's court, says she always wanted to play tennis, and with Wash Park so close, it made sense to try. She definitely intends to keep playing, she says.
Kendra may be the bigger challenger. Seven years old, she already has a typically full plate of activities crowding her second-grade schedule: swimming, stickball, soccer, piano. Still, her mom told her she ought to try tennis, and so she gamely came here today to give it a shot.
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So, is tennis fun? She nods.
Will she try it again?
"I dunno." Kendra shrugs. "Maybe."
Eric Dexheimer recently won first place in the Colorado Society of Professional Journalists' Sportswriting category for "Slide Rules," his March 20, 2003, account of four Colorado heli-skiers caught in an avalanche in British Columbia.