There were few things I loved more growing up than tennis and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But not since Plaxico Burress donned the black and gold (as opposed to the black and white) have I loved something so misguided, so troubled and so wrong.
Coming out of college Burress was a 6'5" speedster who ran good routes and simply looked the part. He was raw, but displayed above-average hands despite his below-average head.
He was a malcontent, a dummy and gave minimum effort. He was labeled lazy and aloof and lacked the focus that could have made him one of the games' greats.
Tennis is Plaxico Burress: full of potential and ready for a rebirth.
But before I dive into them let's be clear on one notion: Yes, I believe more Americans atop the ATP ladder will help drive interest in this sport stateside. I also believe, however, that this is a lazy excuse many Americans, who like tennis mind you, drop because the alternatives are more enticing.
Tennis's governing bodies, television partners, and other interested parties need to take a look at the players themselves clad in Nike and Adidas and Sergio Tacchini and take note:
Start. Selling. The. Game.
Five ways to improve the overall tennis product in the US:
1. Put Them Un: Coaches
Technically, tennis coaches cannot advise their pupils during the match...but it happens anyway. Why not just let the coaches come down onto the court and give a pep talk either at changeovers or between sets?
This would serve two purposes.
First, we'd get insight into tennis strategy like never before. And second, the plausibility of a player reaming out his coach is a near certainty. It'd make for fantastic drama. On second thought, let his or her spouse or girlfriend or boyfriend come down too. They'll be his "corner" so to speak.
I played tennis. It's 95 percent mental, more so than any just about every other sport. If a caddy can talk to his golfer, a coach should be able to talk to his player.
If the tennis 'stars' aren't enough to carry the sport, perhaps a coach is. To be clear, we don't need Americans to carry tennis.
That's a foot fault if I've ever heard one.
The game has character. We need to hear them and get to know them. Period.
If you don't let the coaches down onto the court, the least we could get is a quick interview with the player on crucial changeovers or in between sets.
Let's say one mandatory chat per player per set. Do them conspicuously on a closed circuit so the other player doesn't hear the interview. This can't be too difficult to pull off.
Discuss the combatant's strategies. What's working? What isn't? What might he or she try in this upcoming game? What should we look for?
Again, play up these athletes and their mentalities. Tennis players are fragile and with good reason. It's just them, their opponent, a massive amphitheater and an even bigger audience.
How they cope often determines the winner and loser.
3. Statistics and Metrics
Hawk-Eye, the technology used to determine whether a serve or shot is in or out, is the best technological advancement to sports broadcasting since the 1st-and-10 line.
Now, take it a step further.
Soccer tracks how far a player has run throughout his time on the pitch. Why can't we do this with tennis players? How many miles has he or she covered? What does his or her heartbeat read after a big point or before a championship tiebreaker?
Also, tennis might be the only sport where paying patrons actually change rooting interests during the match. Sure, the die-hards and fellow countrymen won't change allegiances but tennis fans are fickle and will root for whoever is more entertaining (or if they want to see a longer contest).
In short, crowd swings are not out of the ordinary. There must be a way to capture that.
Who Wants To Be A Millionaire was able to!
4. Grand Slam Team Tennis
I admit this final idea is a bit far-fetched but stay with me because the logistics are attainable.
Billie Jean King created World Team Tennis, the co-ed league that few of us care or know about. I like the idea of team tennis but let's apply it to where it may have an impact—the Grand Slam Events.
How do we get it started? Let's hold a draft, of course!
Before the Australian Open, the top four players in the world (let's call them captains) will draft teams for the Grand Slam season.
Let's say the captain must draft seven players each for teams of eight. Let's also have the captain draft a tennis legend as figure-head/team coach (for example, Roger Federer captains Team Agassi).
At the end of the Grand Slam season, the top two teams (according to a points system) play in the Grand Slam Finals to determine the team champion.
Would I watch the Tennis draft? No question. Yes!
Would I be interested in the dynamics and standings of these teams? Absolutely.
Is including a tennis legend a good idea? Of course it is.
Where would these matches take place? Someplace where the people of the region might actually stand to benefit (other than, you know, New York, London, Paris, and Sydney). Play the Grand Slam Finals in Tokyo, or Iceland, or Haiti or Joplin, Missori.
We all know it's an arbitrary tournament, but tennis can use all the good PR it can get.
Tennis is a repetitive and monotonous game by nature, but there is no reason it can't market and sell itself otherwise. Outside of Hawk-Eye, the viewer experience is largely the same as its always been.
With the NFL on strike, the NBA soon to follow, and baseball entering its dog days, the time to approach the net and smash a winner is now.
I love tennis. Like Plaxico Burress, it's got another shot to be great once again. Here's hoping it doesn't shoot itself in the foot...or thigh.