Tennis is spoiled rotten. If you are wondering exactly when a wonderful game became such a lousy sport, the answer is, the first time a corporate executive gave a 14-year-old a stretch limo to play with.
This is an article from the May 9, 1994 issue
To the average sports fan tennis is played by pampered, insolent children, run by overmanned businessmen and governed by quarrelsome organizations, and every one of these parties is hopelessly out of touch with the real world. While prize money spirals ever upward—this year the men arc competing for $58.6 million and the women for $35 million—the players seem to do less and less to earn it.
The public might stand for such excess if tennis weren't so boring. In fact, to many sports fans it's irrelevant. When was the last time it led the evening sportscast? John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors are all but gone, Chris Evert is retired, and Martina Navratilova will soon follow. Andre Agassi and Boris Becker arc oft-injured phantoms, and Monica Seles, the victim of a stabbing a year ago, is on indefinite sabbatical. Steffi Graf and Pete Sampras can't hold the sport up alone.
On those rare occasions when a player with a recognizable name takes the court, nothing happens. If you want action, go to a basketball game. In the average men's hard-court match the ball is in play less than nine minutes per hour, and on grass it's less than four minutes. The rest is toweling off, ball-bouncing, pacing and griping about calls. Meanwhile the umpire is saying, "Quiet, please," and if you try to take your seat before a changeover, the players glare at you. Then you find out that every player in the field at The Lipton Championships in Key Biscayne, Fla., in March was given a personal concierge, his or her own private Mr. French.
Some of the most influential officials and observers of the sport are dismayed by what they see: apathetic players reluctant to make even token personal gestures toward crowds or appearances on behalf of sponsors, whom they don't hesitate to squeeze for more prize money. "They give the least back of any athletes," says NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol.
"I think they need to examine their consciences." says Evert, who describes today's players as "unapproachable, defensive, isolated."
John Beddington, director of the $1.72 million Canadian Open, recently told Tennis Week, "I'm incredibly nervous of asking a player [to do something] for fear he'll knock my head off. You get an attitude of 'Why would I bother to do that for you?' It's been created by a superstar's earning lots of money."
Teenage champions turn pro too early and often burn out or become monsters while tennis authorities fail to discipline or educate them, afraid to offend the source of all that lucre. Billie Jean King, who co-founded the women's pro tour in 1970, says, "There is a part of me that wants to knock it all down and start over again."
Jim Courier spoke volumes about the state of the sport with his behavior at the ATP Tour World Championship in Germany in November. Tired after a long year and uninterested in his match against Ukraine's Andrei Medvedev, Courier pulled out a novel, Armistead Maupin's Maybe the Moon, and began reading during changeovers.
If the players are apathetic, why shouldn't the fans be? Attendance fell at this year's Australian Open by slightly more than 31,000. In the U.S., TV network ratings for the U.S. Open last year were off by 12%. In Germany, Europe's tennis mecca, TV ratings for the ATP Championship were down by 25%, even though it was held in Frankfurt and won by national hero Michael Stich.
The malaise extends all the way to your local tennis courts. At the height of the tennis boom, in 1978, 35 million Americans played the game. That number has shrunk to 22 million. Racket sales in the U.S., which represents roughly half the world tennis-equipment market, fell by 22.6% last year. As for tennis shoes, Nike suffered a 36% drop in U.S. sales in '93 (though business has since picked up).
Even the hardest-working, best-intentioned tour players, cocooned by their wealth, are either unaware that their sport is hurting or unwilling to do anything about it. Graf claims she is under too much pressure already. "Look," she-says, "I need to get away from tennis, not spend more time around it."
Interestingly enough, Agassi, the circuit's most famous hedonist, is among the few stars who understand that tennis is drowning in wretched excess. "It's all take, take, take," says Agassi. "There's nobody to blame except the people who can make it better, and that's the players."
In ease they're listening, here are 10 ways to make tennis better.
1) Players under 17 should be limited to eight tournaments per year.
How many casualties will it take before parents, agents, coaches and governing bodies stop colluding in the ruination of child prodigies? Jimmy Arias and Andrea Jaeger, Top 5 players in the early 1980s, were among the first members of the teenage Hall of Flameout. Having battled a series of shoulder and wrist problems, Arias, now 29, is a mere journeyman on the tour, and the oft-injured Jaeger, 28, has effectively been out of the game for a decade. Yet the women's WTA Tour Players Association and the men's ATP Tour continue to encourage the youth trend. Girls may turn pro at 13 years, 11 months and play 15 events in their first year. Boys may play eight professional tournaments at age 14, and 12 at 15.
Even the International Management Group, the agency that once represented Jaeger and now represents Jennifer Capriati—who at 18 has already felt the need to go on sabbatical—has begun to question the wisdom of allowing young teens to follow grueling schedules that take them all over the globe. "I hate to see them get so good so young," says Bob Kain, who heads IMG's tennis division. "They go through an unbelievably tough period. Something more has to be done to help them."
Players join the tour before their bodies or their games are sufficiently developed. "There is hardly any coach who takes the time to develop good technique and physical fitness," said German coach Klaus Hofs‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üss in an interview with Germany's Sports Life magazine. "I keep hearing from players, 'My coach says I shouldn't volley!' " Brian Tobin, president of the International Tennis Federation, says, "The coaches, managers and agents who are living off the players don't want to take any risks. They just want the players to get 80 percent of the balls in the court, and the players tend to become robots."
A limit of eight tournaments a year for all players under 17 would at least attempt to safeguard their long-term physical and emotional health and broaden their games, yet still allow for the breakthrough of a phenom. The coaching commission of the ITF—which runs the Davis Cup and Federation Cup competitions and helps oversee the four Grand Slam tournaments—won't go that far, but it has recommended that girls be restricted to four pro events at age 14, six at 15, and 12 (plus the Grand Slams) at 16. The WTA, meanwhile, has named a board of experts to study age and education requirements for girls. But no change is likely to occur in time to prevent 13-year-old prodigies Venus Williams of the U.S. and Martina Hingis of Switzerland from hitting the circuit this season if they choose to.
However, what better expert is there than Seles, who says she turned pro too early? "We've seen the results of playing at 14," says Navratilova, 37, who didn't go on the circuit full-time until she was 17. "It is no accident that I'm not only still playing, but I can contribute intellectually."
As Navratilova implies, the age issue in tennis is not just about youth; it's about education, too. Sampras turned pro at 16, Graf at 13, and neither has seen the inside of a classroom since. How well-rounded can they be? McEnroe, whatever his faults may be, is an articulate man with a wide range of interests partly because he had a brush with college, spending a year at Stanford. Evert was forbidden by her parents to turn pro until she finished high school. Like McEnroe, Connors spent one year in college, at UCLA, and Arthur Ashe actually graduated from UCLA.
"School is where you go through the final stages of your character development, but these kids don't," says Ebersol, who thinks that the players' lack of social skills keeps them from connecting with fans. "At 12 they're off on the junior circuits, where every little need is pampered."
One player in particular who has suffered for his callowness is the 22-year-old Sampras. He's No. 1 in the world but has been received coolly by the public. If Sampras plays long enough, the public may discover that he is an engaging, shrewd young man. But he might have connected with more people already if he had spent more time interacting with his non-tennis-playing peers. Sampras's existence thus far has been solitary.
"It's one regret I might have," Sampras says of leaving high school. "Going to school is part of growing up, developing. Going to parties, getting in a little trouble, all of that helps make you a broader person." He pauses. "Also, I might have a good friend. You know, I don't have a really good friend."
2) Put a lid on the free stuff.
True story: A top-ranked player on the women's tour, a teenage millionaire, was given a Lexus by a sponsor to drive during a tournament. She liked the car. She liked it so much that she asked if she could keep it. No, said the incredulous sponsor.
Fact: During tournaments every player on the men's circuit receives free accommodations, often in cushy resorts. Starting next year, women will receive free accommodations for at least three days during each tournament.
The practice of lavishing amenities on tennis players begins when they are children and builds from there. U.S. Davis Cup captain Tom Gullikson thinks the ever-increasing luxuries are one reason education is no longer valued by parents and coaches, who are eager for immediate returns on their investments. "Why isn't a college scholarship a good return?" says Gullikson.
Dr. Julie Anthony, a psychologist, tennis coach and former player, sees in the tour an unwholesome culture in which basic values degenerate. "There is no one teaching the players that they have a responsibility to anyone but themselves," says Anthony. "When you deal with teenagers, you're talking about essentially selfish organisms. They're obsessed with themselves, their hair, their skin, their weight. Then you put them in an environment that does nothing but feed their self-absorption. You're going to create some real prizes there."
Gullikson spent two years coaching Capriati. One day he presented her with a book. Capriati, 15 years old at the time, glanced at the cover. It was a guide to good manners. "Read it," Gullikson said. "You could use it."
Some players have the grace to be abashed by their riches. "There's no question we're spoiled," says Courier. "It's embarrassing." Tournament directors, though, make their living by attracting strong fields. But as costs rise, the perks become increasingly questionable. The Lipton Championships cost $10 million to stage, yet for years many of the players petulantly complained about the conditions. Tournament chairman Butch Buchholz says, "We should probably ask ourselves more often what is a fair return on our investment. We've made some money the last few years. Not a lot."
Yet this year Buchholz not only gave all the players free rooms in first-class hotels but also offered those personal concierges—volunteers who picked up each player at the airport and were available throughout the tournament to "arrange a golf game or whatever the player might request," Buchholz said. Agassi, for one, was not just unappreciative but also derisive. "Let me put it this way," he said. "You want my concierge?"
To help restore a sense of reality, tournament directors should refuse to pay hotel costs for players. Golfers on the PGA Tour pay their own expenses. Why shouldn't tennis players?
3) Hire a commissioner.
What's all this alphabet soup? Tennis has too many authorities protecting their own turf: the ITF, ATP, WTA, WTC, USTA, etc. None of them has shown that it can make a decision for the good of the game instead of its own self-interest.
How did this come to be? Tennis was played and run by so-called amateurs until 1968, when player revolts ushered in the open, or professional, era. Suddenly several competing factions, along with a handful of powerful player agents, scrambled for control, grabbing whatever territory they could while the players formed unionlike organizations. The result is a sport that lacks any centralized governance or marketing and is rife with conflicts of interest. IMG, for example, not only manages about 100 players but also runs tournaments, organizes exhibitions, holds broadcast rights to events and owns Nick Bollettieri's tennis academy.
ATP chief executive officer Mark Miles and WTA executive director Gerry Smith often seem more concerned with negotiating yearly prize-money increases for the players who employ them than with correcting the sport's deep-seated ills. Don't hold your breath, but the current tennis bodies should step aside and jointly appoint a commissioner for both men and women who will set and enforce rules and will market the game worldwide—someone who will do for tennis what David Stern has done for pro basketball.
The first thing a commissioner should do is simplify the schedules. Tennis is suffering from market clutter. For instance, during the week beginning Jan. 31, the men's tour featured three tournaments on three continents: the $1 million Dubai Open, the $514,000 Marseille Open and the $289,000 San Jose Open. Two weeks after the eight-player, $2.75 million ATP Championship concludes in Frankfurt in November, the IFF stages the 16-player, $6 million Grand Slam Cup in Munich. Further obfuscating matters are exhibitions or so-called special events, which only the most die-hard tennis follower can distinguish from sanctioned tournaments and which are run concurrently with sanctioned tournaments.
Both tours are supporting too many events and too many players. A total of 1,300 players are ranked by the ATP, 1,000 by the WTA. Last year 1,043 players won prize money on the ATP Tour. By contrast, only 336 golfers earned paychecks on the PGA Tour. The 100th-ranked male tennis player, Henri Leconte of France, pulled in $277,126.
4) How about a little discipline?
At the ATP Championship every player has his own locker room, a plush space with an easy chair and a glass coffee table. After Goran Ivanisevic of Croatia lost to Stich in last year's semis, he smashed his coffee table to pieces. He was not fined.
Trouble is, the players are above the authority of the officials. Even McEnroe was defaulted only once in his career, at the Australian Open in 1990. A chair umpire is undermined every time a player, objecting to a call, sends for the tournament referee, who often sides with the player.
Tennis is the only major sport that virtually never suspends athletes for egregious behavior. During a match against Petr Korda at the '90 U.S. Open, Agassi, enraged over a line call, cursed at chair umpire Wayne McKewen and then spit at him. The two men then argued over whether Agassi had spit intentionally, and Agassi sent for Grand Slam supervisor Ken Farrar. After a three-way discussion McKewen announced a point penalty against Agassi, which put him one infraction away from being defaulted. But Farrar, who had decided to give Agassi the benefit of the doubt, made McKewen rescind the penalty. The match continued, and Agassi won. After reviewing a tape of the incident the next day, Farrar concluded that the spitting had been deliberate and lined Agassi $3,000.
The next time a player smashes something, suspend him. If he acts up in a match, default him.
5) How about a smile?
Courier had just beaten Becker to win the U.S. Hardcourt title last August, and the crowd in Indianapolis continued to applaud him as commentator Bud Collins interviewed him before a television camera. When they went off the air, Collins gestured toward the stadium and asked Courier, "Would you like to say a few words to the crowd?"
"No," Courier said and strolled away.
When Sampras stares at his feet and Courier saunters off the court without acknowledging the fans, spectators have the uneasy feeling that they are in a vacuum rather than a stadium. Tennis. Sampras says. should be "strictly business," and Courier concurs. Yes, but it's the entertainment business. Otherwise, why are fans charged $25 at the gate?
"The one thing I've always known," says Agassi, "is that people had better walk out of that stadium feeling that there's no way they'd rather spend their money."
That doesn't mean players should try to entertain at the expense of their best tennis—something of which the showboating Agassi has been guilty. It also doesn't mean that they should try to be something they're not. So Sampras isn't David Letterman. What's wrong with that? "It is sickening that someone who is down-to-earth, polite, behaves well, is reasonably clever and wears nice clothes almost has to apologize for being the way he is," says one of Sampras's admirers, Ivan Lendl, who was considered even duller during his reign as No. 1.
The enigmatic Courier doesn't emote either. That's fine too; Joe Montana doesn't spill his emotions all over the field. But there's a difference between not emoting and being opaque.
Nike's ad campaigns are proof that everyone can have personality. Courier has become a more accessible figure through his candid TV ads, which are part of his five-year, $16 million contract with Nike. A TV campaign will certainly emerge from the deal that Sampras just signed with Nike, which will pay him a reported $18 million over the next live years. But it's ridiculous for the public to have to watch commercials to get to know the players. Surely they can give a little more to the crowds in the stands.
Try this: At every event, spectators find lottery numbers in their programs. The winner gets to go down on the court and attempt to return a star player's serve.
"I could do that," Sampras says.
6) Crack down on tanking.
It happens. Everybody knows it. Sergi Bruguera of Spain, the reigning French Open champion, has given a number of efforts that seemed halfhearted at best. He was, for example, suspected of tanking at last year's U.S. Open. Trailing countryman Javier Sànchez two sets to love in the first round, Bruguera sank like a stone in the third set. Recently Ukraine's Natalia Medvedeva lost 6-4, 6-0 to Chanda Rubin in the quarters of a Virginia Slims event. Afterward Medvedeva admitted that she had dumped the last couple of games. "I didn't give up until probably 4-0," she says. She was not fined.
"I think [tanking is] becoming more prevalent." says the Ill's Tobin. As for the ATP, its ranking system practically asks players to tank. The system tabulates only a player's best 14 tournament results over the previous 52 weeks, allowing him to throw out his worst results. The formula was designed to encourage players to play more; in fact, it takes the sting out of losing. What's to prevent a player from accepting a tournament's six-figure guarantee, tanking in the first round and then jetting off to appear in a lucrative exhibition the following week?
The only thing that should be tanked is the best-of-14 rule.
Those six-figure guarantees provide an even bigger incentive for players to give less than their all. True story: Sampras received a staggering $500,000 guarantee just to play a tournament in Qatar early this year. He cavalierly flew in the night before his first-round match and lost to a Moroccan qualifier named Karim Alami, who was ranked 205th in the world. Sampras, who is hardworking and decent, apologized for not being better prepared. Still, he didn't give the money back.
Another true story: Agassi got his own six-figure guarantee to play a tournament last year in Halle, Germany. Like Sampras in Qatar, Agassi went down in the first round. Why not? The winner's check for the tournament was only $50,000.
Guarantees should be paid only if a player reaches the quarterfinals. He doesn't make it, he doesn't get the money. (Guarantees are not such a problem on the women's tour because, with fewer tournaments, tournament directors don't have to compete for the top players.)
Some players don't bother to tank, they just don't show up. A growing problem among both men and women is 11th-hour withdrawals. It seems that hardly a week goes by when a leading player doesn't pull out of an upcoming tournament for a suspect medical reason. On the men's tour the number of withdrawals due to injury in this noncontact sport rose from 74 in 1989 to an amazing 194 in '93 and 52 in the first quarter of '94. Last year the women's tour suffered a record 61 injuries and withdrawals from tournaments—32 by Top 10 players. "They don't care," Navratilova says of the players in general. "They reap all the benefits and try to get away with doing as little as possible."
When King suggested in a year-end players' meeting that they refuse a 5% prize-money increase as a gesture of good faith to their sponsors and tournament directors, she was met with silence. They took the money. It may cost them.
7) Institute pro-ams at every tour stop.
Is it any wonder that tennis is suffering in the marketplace while golf is thriving? Most golfers can't even move the needle or) the charisma meter. But they work every day at promoting their sport for their corporate sponsors. Participation in pro-ams is required on the PGA Tour. Refusal is considered "conduct unbecoming a professional golfer" and is subject to discipline. On the Senior tour, players who do not play in the pro-am are not allowed to enter that week's event.
It would behoove tennis players to take a more businesslike approach to their sport, because they could be facing a pay cut. While the ATP is wealthy at the moment, it is facing a big loss in 1996, when its television-rights deal with German TV expires. This agreement accounts for 75% of the ATP's worldwide TV income. The Germans won't renew at anywhere close to the current rate because of plummeting ratings caused by market clutter and viewer fatigue. The ATP is looking for a new revenue stream.
The WTA is facing a more immediate crisis. It must find a new title sponsor to replace Kraft, which pulled out of tennis at the end of last year because it had grown tired of the sport's political and financial wrangling and because it was not convinced that pouring money into tennis helped sell a single slice of Velveeta. Seven women's tournaments are without sponsorship for 1995. In short, the women could be playing a much smaller, poorer tour in the near future.
Meanwhile, corporate sponsors cite the difficulty of getting players of note to show up for a promotional effort or a cocktail party—even though the players know, as manager Ion Tiriac says, "that they get those millions of dollars not only for playing a few tennis matches but also for being available to the public." At the Virginia Slims of Philadelphia, tournament director Barbara Perry holds a meet-the-players party in the lobby of the players' hotel because the only way she can get the top women to come is by collaring them on their way out to dinner.
"Forget asking a player to do anything," says Norman Salik, a vice president of Bausch & Lomb, which helps sponsor six tournaments on the men's and women's tours. Salik cites endorsement deals with Agassi and Lendl that required them to make only one appearance—which they skipped. Bausch & Lomb will reevaluate its commitment to tennis when its contracts with the tours expire over the next two years.
8) If a baseball player can hit a 95-mph fastball in front of 80,000 screaming people, then why does a tennis player need total silence? Let there be noise.
Tennis needs to get hip. Imagine this: You go to a tournament, and before a match you hear rock music blasting from the speakers. An emcee gives each player a lengthy introduction worthy of a prizefighter. Two players come out in baggy shorts and Day-Glo T-shirts. They play before a crowd that moves around freely and cheers during points.
It could happen. Truth to tell, World TeamTennis has taken this kind of approach for years. After two decades of shunning King's pet project because of its commercialism, mainstream tennis authorities seem ready to steal from it. Fan ennui has driven the ATP, WTA and ITF to discuss how to give tennis more bang for the buck. The ATP has already staged promotional stunts and fan-participation events at tournaments, and it will experiment with free crowd circulation, music and on-court couching this year. "These guys have laughed at Billie Jean for years," says Evert. "It turns out she was right."
Myth: The sound of a beer cup falling can cause a double fault. Enough with the princess-and-the-pea conditioning. If players want utter quiet, they should play in an air lock.
As for dress codes, bag 'em. Clone the Jensens. Brothers and doubles partners Luke and Murphy Jensen, who wear bowling shirts, slouch socks and black high-tops and have long hair and goatees, have become matinee idols even though they've won only one major title, last year's French Open doubles.
9) Give it some gas.
No sporting event should last more than three hours, particularly one that has so little live action. Why do players need 25 seconds between points to collect themselves? The game was better when play was continuous. Why not put a time clock on the court? If a player doesn't get his serve off in 15 seconds, he loses the point.
Also, take away the chairs. A player doesn't need to sit down at every changeover while one ball boy holds an umbrella over his head and another pours the Evian.
10) Spread the wealth.
The president of the U.S. Tennis Association, J. Howard (Bumpy) Frazer, was asked what his organization is doing to promote tennis among minorities.
"Well, we have a committee," he said.
"All of our sections have committees," he said.
"I feel in the strongest way that minority citizens can enjoy watching and playing tennis every bit as much as I do."
Major reality check: LeGeorge Mauldin lives in South Central Los Angeles, in the heart of gangland. LeGeorge may be the best 12-and-under player in Southern California, but he had to give up tennis for several months last year because funding for the inner-city program in which he played temporarily dried up.
LeGeorge is back on the courts again, thanks to a $5,000 donation from the ATP, which heard about his plight through the television show The Crusaders. LeGeorge takes lessons from a recently retired postal worker named Richard Williams, who for 20 years has been trying to spread the game to South Central kids on his days off.
Williams and his brother, Fred, run the California Tennis Association for Underprivileged Youth on a shoestring budget of about $8,000 a year, which they scrape together from small donations from a variety of sources. For a year or so $800 or $900 a month came in from a neighborhood drug dealer, but in 1990 the man was sent to prison.
If tennis is to become a truly public sport and resume growing as it did in the 1970s, it must get into the inner cities. The USTA spends most of its money running tournaments. Recently, however, it combined with the Tennis Industry Association to create the USTA Play Tennis America program, under which, for $24.95, anyone can order a kit that includes an inexpensive racket, a video, a tennis manual and a series of free tennis lessons in three cities: Austin, Texas; Charlotte, N.C.; and Tucson. The ATP has begun funding the National Junior Tennis League, a USTA urban youth program. Still, the USTA spends only an estimated $500,000—less than 1% of its annual budget of $91 million—on minority programs. And it costs $600,000 a year just to run the inner-city program in Washington, D.C.
The future of tennis may well be in the hands of people like the Williamses and Doug MacCurdy, the ITF's director of development. MacCurdy, a former teaching pro, is a veritable Johnny Appleseed, traveling to remote parts of the world" to spread the game. The ITF devotes approximately $4 million a year to its global development program. Sometimes carrying only a simple kit—a couple of broad wooden bats and an old ball—MacCurdy has introduced tennis to villages from Mongolia to Benin. Today a 17-year-old girl from Madagascar, Dally Randriantefy, is the sixth-ranked junior in the world. MacCurdy has helped Randriantefy and others get training and college scholarships.
There are those who believe that the greatest tennis talent who ever lived will never pick up a racket because he or she lives in some place like inner-city Detroit or Chicago. "If you could get the racket into the hands of some of those kids," Agassi says, "they might make me look like a club player."
Back in South Central, Williams spies a bunch of kids. He approaches them with an armful of rackets and a handful of balls. "Come on over here and see if you can hit this," he says.
Meanwhile, somewhere in West Africa, MacCurdy stretches a piece of string between two trees. Then he turns to a group of village children and tells them, "Now we're going to play a little game with a paddle."