Perception Tennis is Struggling Misguided, Simply Case of “Rest of the World Catching Up”
U.S. men’s tennis has failed to produce a Grand Slam singles champion since Andy Roddick won the U.S. Open back in 2003. The drought, the longest in U.S. men’s tennis history, comes on the heels of a 14-year period (began in ‘89) where American men combined to collect 27 pieces of Grand Slam hardware. The disappearance of the American male from the Top 10 of the ATP rankings, along with a precipitous decline in the number of tournaments hosted on American soil has led to the perception that professional tennis in the United States is struggling. But tennis historian Randy Walker says that domestic interest in the sport remains strong and the U.S.’ diminishing influence on the game is simply a case of “the rest of the world catching up.”
Howie Long-Short: The drop-off in the number of domestic tournaments - in 1978 the U.S. hosted 37 tournaments, in 2019 it will host just four Grand Slam or Masters Series tournaments - can be tied directly to globalization of the sport. Until 1974, the United States, Great Britain, France and Australia were the only countries to have won the Davis Cup, so it wasn’t as if competition to host tournaments outside the U.S. was particularly strong at that time. The turning point was the 1988 Olympic Games. Tennis was reinstated as an Olympic sport for the Seoul Games and countries throughout Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R. began subsidizing participation in the sport.
Walker points to the strength of the remaining Grand Slam and Masters Series tournaments as an indication that interest in the sport remains strong. He said, the U.S. Open is “generating more revenue and drawing larger crowds than ever before; it’s no longer just a tennis tournament, it’s become a must-attend event. Indian Wellshas exploded in popularity since Larry Ellison took it over roughly a decade ago. The Miami Open experienced a huge jump in attendance this year with Stephen Ross involved and Hard Rock Stadium hosting the event and Cincinnati has seen such a large rise in attendance over the last 6-8 years that they’ve had to increase the size of their venue.” It certainly appears as if this is a case of less is more.
The decline in the number of U.S. men in the ATP Tour rankings and the lack of transcendent American star is also contributing to the perception that tennis lacks popularity, but Walker says that if you look back at domestic television ratings for Wimbledon over the last two decades “theyhave been pretty consistent.” The greatness of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and the Williams sisters and the emergence of several young female stars (see: Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys and Coco Gauff) have managed to prevent a ratings decline. It's worth noting that ESPN reported ratings for the 2019 tournament climbed +30% YoY (to an average of 877,000 viewers).
If there is a cause for concern for the U.S. Tennis Association, it’s in the lack of enthusiasm surrounding lower-level WTA and ATP tournaments. The emphasis placed on the U.S. Open and the three Masters Series events has “sucked the air out of the smaller tournaments in those regions.” Without the tour’s biggest stars, many struggle to draw beyond the hardcore tennis fan. Walker believes that “charismatic promoters” can overcome that problem, citing new Washington D.C. ATP/WTA Citi Open owner Mark Ein and the success he’s had turning WorldTeam Tennis (see: Washington Kastles) into “one of the big social events in D.C. during the summer.”
Fan Marino: Did you know? Tennis’ Grand Slams (U.S. Open, Wimbledon, French Open, Australian Open) originated because of the early domination referenced in the Davis Cup. In the first half of the 20th century, the winner of the Davis Cup hosted the event the following year. Host nations began holding national championships as warmup events in the week leading up to (or following) the Davis Cup. The ability to draw the best players from around the world - they were making the long trek by boat, so they were motivated to make the most of their visits - gave the newly formed events gravitas.
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