Why Is American Tennis Dying?

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett@@merlisaFeatured ColumnistNovember 21, 2013

The U.S. flag on display at the 2013 U.S. Open.
The U.S. flag on display at the 2013 U.S. Open.Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

American tennis is dying.

It's dying a slow death brought on by complications from several contributing causes. 

Don't be fooled by rosy reports of increased participation among kids. American tennis is declining where it counts—at the college and professional levels, on television and in popular culture.

The demise of tennis in the U.S. is puzzling because the sport thrives in other parts of the world. Prize money for premier events continues to increase, and top tennis players enjoy remarkable wealth. Roger Federer is second only to Tiger Woods among the highest-paid athletes. Four of the five richest female athletes are tennis players, according to Forbes magazine. 

Clearly tennis is alive and well elsewhere, but there are no American men ranked in the ATP's Top 10. The U.S., which dominated Davis Cup in the 1970s, hasn't won since 2007. Television ratings for the U.S. Open are a fraction of what they used to be in the era of Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. 

So why is a sport that is growing world-wide struggling to survive in America? 

Many factors contribute to the deteriorating state of tennis in America. They include the dearth of Americans playing college tennis, the decline in American-based tennis tournaments and the absence of an American male superstar. 

There was once a time when crops of fresh tennis talent came from the ranks of the NCAA. College tennis served as a training ground for John McEnroe (Stanford), Jimmy Connors (UCLA), Arthur Ashe (UCLA) and John Isner (Georgia).

Isner, No. 14, is the highest-ranked American male. Lisa Raymond, who played at Florida in the early 1990s, is the last former women’s college player to break the top 20 in singles. Raymond, 39, continues to play doubles. 

2013 U.S. Davis Cup team, without any American male ranked in Top 10.
2013 U.S. Davis Cup team, without any American male ranked in Top 10.Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

These days it's tougher to find Americans on college teams in the U.S. Nearly half of all NCAA tennis players are foreigners. Earlier this year, South Carolina's The State newspaper reported that 51 percent of the rosters of 11 state Division I programs were made up of foreign students. 

The millions of dollars in scholarship money going to non-U.S. citizens has sparked criticism, but that's mostly because some question of whether U.S. taxpayers should be footing the tuition bills of so many foreign players. The argument rarely touches on how the lack of American players in college is impacting the popularity of the sport at home. 

More troubling is the reduction of major tournaments in the U.S. and the rise of events in South America and Asia. 

Serena and Venus Williams at medal ceremony at 2012 Olympics.
Serena and Venus Williams at medal ceremony at 2012 Olympics.Julian Finney/Getty Images

In 2012, columnist Tim Joyce wrote a story for Real Clear Sports in which he lamented the disappearance of tennis tournaments in California. That's right, the largest state in the country, the childhood home to Billie Jean King, the Williams sisters and Pete Sampras, has one significant tournament: Indian Wells. 

The SAP Championship, which has been played in Northern California since 1889, moved to Memphis this year. It is now being relocated to Rio de Janeiro.

The Carlsbad WTA tournament in Southern California is moving to Tokyo in 2014. Southern California has lost four professional tennis tournaments in the last eight years. 

Meanwhile, the WTA is expanding in Asia. The tour will host 16 events in the Asian-Pacific region in 2014. Five will be in China, home to star Li Na

Television ratings in the U.S. are also not what they used to be, especially on the men's side. 

Serena Williams remains the most dominant player in women's tennis. When she's in the final of a Grand Slam, television ratings go up. Her 2013 U.S. Open final against Victoria Azarenka drew the highest ratings in 11 years.

Williams is dynamic, a tennis icon and—most importantly for ratings in the U.S.—she is American. Matches in which Williams is in the final are outdrawing men's matches, even those with Federer. 

Williams has no American male counterpart, though.

Andy Roddick's victory at the 2003 U.S. Open was the last time an American male won a Grand Slam. Roddick has retired, and Isner hasn't even reached a Grand Slam final.  

This year, the state of American men's tennis sank to a new low. It was the first time in 132 years that no American male advanced past the third round of this country's home Slam. 

Yes, there are signs of success. Americans took home medals in four of the five categories at the 2012 Olympics in London. Sloane Stephens is ranked No. 12. Madison Keys and Jamie Hampton have also shown promise.

Participation in tennis grew four percent, according to a 2012 survey conducted by the Tennis Industry Association. The biggest growth was among children ages six to 11, which increased by 13 percent. The USTA has heavily promoted its 10 and under program, which uses smaller rackets and courts to introduce youngsters to the game. 

That type of initiative may breathe new life into a sport that is ailing in America, but right now U.S. tennis needs more than meager attempts at resuscitation. It needs a shot in the arm, a dynamic male player who wins titles.  

A commitment from American colleges to recruit home-grown talent might help, too. If more Americans compete at the collegiate and professional levels, attendance at tournaments will be less of a problem. 

As things stand, tennis, a once vibrant sport in this country, is being outsourced. It's not dead, but it is lingering on life support.