Tennis Fans: Will They Ever Respect Us?

Rob YorkSenior Writer IOctober 20, 2008

Anecdote #1: In the winter of 1998, my senior year, I was the top-ranked player on the men’s tennis team at Henry County High School in Paris, Tenn. Since I shared a class with both the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds on the ladies’ team, we discussed what we were doing in order to get into shape for our upcoming spring season.

At this point, another guy in our class who played on the football (American version) team in the fall and the football (international version) team in spring asked what he probably thought was a respectable question:

“Why do you guys on the tennis team bother with conditioning when all ya’ll do is stand there?”

Anecdote #2: In the winter of 2007, Sports Illustrated picked its Sportsman of the Year: Brett Favre. It was the fourth consecutive year in which Roger Federer had turned in a SOTY-worthy performance, and the fourth straight year in which SI had snubbed him. While I’m not Federer’s biggest fan, this situation was becoming more unjust with every year.

In 2004, the year he won three major titles for the first time, he was passed over in favor of the Boston Red Sox, who had won their first World Series in 86 years, after completing an unprecedented comeback from down 3-0 against their archrival Yankees. That, at least, was understandable.

In 2005 the honor had gone to Tom Brady and in 2006 to Dwyane Wade, both leaders of the teams that had won their sports’ championships. Certainly no modest achievements, but neither had so comprehensively dominated the way Federer had in that span of time: winning a total of five major titles, all the while losing nine matches and winning more than 170.

2007 was the final outrage: Brett Favre had put up impressive results that year following foot surgery, but he was not even clearly the best player in his own position in his own sport, and he was not expected to lead his team to a Super Bowl victory. I joined the message boards at SI’s web site to see if there were sports fans as disappointed as myself.

There were Federer boosters there, but there were others who felt Favre was a perfectly deserving choice. The most passionate (if not the most articulate) of these identified himself as a Wisconsin native, saying that Favre gave hope to his entire state. Then he followed up with what he probably considered a rhetorical masterstroke:

“There is no way any tennis player deserves an award for anything besides playing tennis.”

Anecdote #3: In the summer of 2008, I struck up a conversation with a fellow church member after the service. He’d recently suffered a serious injury playing football (international version), and I had only recently recovered from a severe ankle injury I received on the tennis courts in May. I thought we could trade stories related to our injuries, but instead he asked what he probably considered a perfectly reasonable query:

“How do you get injured playing tennis?”

He said this in much the same manner one would ask about a chess-related malady. Apparently, that’s how our sport is perceived. Probably any lifelong tennis player or fan from around the world has a similar batch of stories accrued from numerous interactions with the fans of other athletic endeavors.

What do patrons of the game that David Foster Wallace called “the most beautiful sport there is” have to do to get some respect? The game is growing at a faster rate in parts of the world outside of United States, but don’t dismiss all the previous anecdotes as the ignorance of Americans; the subject of Anecdote #3 was South African, and a compatriot of his once asked me why the tennis scoring system is so “weird” – I gathered that it was a major barrier to his interest in the sport.

Many fans have offered potential solutions: changing the scoring system, returning to wood rackets, allowing cheering during points, etc. Most of these ideas range from inconsequential (wooden rackets would just mean slower pace, and would do little to enhance the credibility of its athletes) to outright sacrilege (yes, tennis’ scoring system is an oddity, but it’s our oddity, and we like it!).

The most meaningful reform I think the game could make is to cap the number of events played throughout the year and shorten the season by two months. This would prevent a lot of injuries and keep the game’s most consistent performers from wearing themselves out, thus ensuring more marquee events.

However, even this is no guarantee that the sporting world will ever give us the respect we deserve. Even if there is a match of the quality of Federer-Nadal Wimbledon ’08 every year, shouldn’t the first one have been enough? For all the greats who have made the sport what it is, there has been only one male tennis player, and two ladies, ever chosen as Sportsman of the Year (and the one man selected, Arthur Ashe, didn’t even get the award for playing tennis, but for humanitarian work)

Maybe there’s nothing we can do, but I’m open to suggestions.