Tennis is a game that has suffered a lot in the United States. Not just the amount of players ranked in the ATP and WTA rankings, but the overall popularity of the sport. What has happened to the game of tennis in the U.S.?
The sport has been dubbed a "country club sport" and there is certainly some truth to that. It is a tough sport to afford year in and year out for families.
Eight-time Grand Slam winner Jimmy Connors said, “Somebody is to blame. It’s a matter of who is to blame. Why don’t the kids want to go out and play tennis? They do, but we get them too late. They go through soccer, basketball and baseball and by the time they come to tennis they’re 16 and 17 years old and it is too late. We need to figure out a way to get the kids when they’re young, eight and nine years old.”
Connors is absolutely right.
The USTA has recognized an increase in tennis participation, but Connors questions the legitimacy of those numbers as he never sees anybody on public courts traveling all over the country. He believes that the game should be like it was 30 or 40 years ago, when kids and families would be lining up to get to the courts to play tennis.
What has the problem been? I certainly believe that the overall direction of the USTA has something to do with it.
Let's look back to the glory days of American tennis, when nobody questioned the talent being produced within this country's borders.
On the men's side, we saw Connors, Bill Tilden, Don Budge, Jim Courier, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. On the women's side, we saw Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, Lindsay Davenport and certainly Martina Navratilova. These names participated in a period when tennis was a prominent American sport and pastime.
The USTA provides astronomical amounts of money, wild cards and qualifying opportunities to some of the best but they are failing to give talented rising professionals a chance.
Let's face it. Without wild cards into tournaments, it is very difficult to make it to the next level. Ask Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras about that.
I'll give you an example. Look at Donald Young, who currently sits at No. 127 in the world rankings. I guarantee that he would not be ranked as high without the USTA supplying an unlimited amount of wild cards to him.
The American men have come on in the past year with John Isner, Sam Querrey, Mardy Fish and Andy Roddick remaining consistent. The women have the Williams sisters but there is a big gap with Melanie Oudin, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Vania King and Jill Craybas. Ultimately, there still remain a lot of young prospects that are trying to break into the Top 100.
The question isn't the talent but how to get players who are below the Top 100 onto the radar and headed into the Top 50. Donald Young's father said he'd win numerous Grand Slams but the only highlight we've seen from Young is a career-high ranking of No. 73. We see a trend of players dominating junior tennis nationally and internationally, but cannot translate success to the professional level.
The French Tennis Federation has done a great job with identifying talent and making sure young children get the best training. The French have 11 players in the ATP Top 100 for the men but the problem they have is with the women's side with only four in the WTA Top 100. The French have been focusing on the women's side and trying to get the right pieces in place for all the younger girls.
The European countries have an advantage because they are so much smaller and don't have to travel as far for tournaments. Americans have to take long car drives, expensive flights and pay numerous nights in a hotel. This takes a toll on players, financially. Brian Vahaly, former ATP Top 100, said in an article with Tennis Magazine that a tennis professional won't start breaking even until they reach the Top 100.
Patrick McEnroe currently sits as the general manager for the Player Development sector of the USTA. McEnroe has done a great job to get talented kids into academies, let them beat up on each other and get better. This is how the champions such as Agassi were groomed in Bradenton at the IMG Bolletieri Academy.
The USTA must do a better job of looking out for our professionals financially. The professionals could gather at academies and workout together to prevent high-paying costs of court time. This is a major component that prohibits Americans from advancing in the tennis world because they lack funds and sponsors. Donald Young has a lucrative deal from Nike and Head so someone like him will be just fine.
There also needs to be a greater exposure to the different surfaces. This is why the USTA Player Development National Training Center is at the Evert Academy in Boca Raton, Florida. There are clay courts down there and we must continue to expose the American youth to as many scenarios as possible.
This should be an interesting season of tennis. Let's see if the Americans can step it up and some of the younger prospects can break into the Top 100 and begin playing consistent tennis.
With that, America can regain its power in the tennis world and create tennis legends.