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Why Have Americans Lost Interest in Tennis?

Since the Agassi-Sampras era, Americans have given tennis the cold shoulder even as the sport has gone through a golden age. With the US Open starting this week, it’s time to get reacquainted with a sport we once loved.

by
Brendan Bernhard

Bio

August 29, 2010 - 12:05 am
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The fact that Nadal, the new world No. 1, has bulging biceps, an in-your-face style, and otherworldly athleticism, hasn’t notably improved the situation. Though he does go in for sly time-wasting, he is generally an excellent sport, a charismatic personality, and appears to live a scandal-free existence. He’s also an international heart-throb, at least beyond American waters, but his romantic life has been kept fairly private. (In his Wikipedia entry under “Personal Life,” is a single sentence: “Nadal has revealed himself to be an Agnostic.”) Likewise the top women players. Many of them wear come-hither on-court outfits and are regularly photographed in bikinis, but their sex lives are so opaque they might as well be nuns.

Tennis ought to appeal to conservatives, not least on the grounds that today’s players are polite and well-mannered, though there’s a fair amount of bitchiness among the women. But my sense is that the game’s attraction is mostly to liberals. This intuition was only fortified when veteran tennis writer Pete Bodo announced on his blog that he was writing about tennis-nut Sean Hannity’s serious case of tennis-nuttiness for Tennis magazine. The reception on the site’s usually excellent comments board was distinctly chilly. Of course a lot of people dislike Hannity, but the liberal tilt was fairly pronounced, and in some cases characteristically censorious.

The U.S. Open begins August 30, and lasts two weeks. It should be pretty good. U.S. Open’s usually are. Wimbledon may be the grandest of the Grand Slams, but the one in Flushing Meadows is the most joyously raucous. The hush that falls over Wimbledon’s historic lawns is notable by its absence — we got concrete, not grass — particularly during night matches. We may never again see the kind of drunken craziness provoked by a midnight duel between Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, or by Agassi and Sampras, but then New Yorkers are not as wild as they used to be.

One theory as to tennis’ declining popularity is that baby boomers who grew up with Borg, Connors, McEnroe, et al, are too old to play it anymore and thus have migrated to playing and watching golf. Novelist Martin Amis, once an avid tennis player, recently admitted that it’s not much fun hitting the courts at 60 when your reaction time is half what it used to be. “You see the return coming over the net, and you think, Oh, look, there’s a ball coming over the net. … So then you do an absurd dash to the ball, and are completely crowded on the shot. It’s grotesque. Going to a lot of trouble to get humiliated every afternoon, I don’t see the appeal in that.”

Contrast that with the story a fellow tennis fan told me about golf: “A video producer I worked for used to take his crew golfing and they would all smoke pot before playing. Try that before a tennis match. I think Americans have always played more golf than tennis. It’s just a more enjoyable sport to play poorly: Hit a lousy shot, get in your golf cart, go for a ride, fetch the ball, hit another lousy shot, smoke a joint, etc.” Still, even if you’re too old or lazy to actually play a sport, that doesn’t automatically mean you lose interest in it as a spectator. Can it be that we’re a nation of individualists who only like team sports? But then why do we like golf?

The most obvious explanation for tennis’ woes can be found by examining the men’s Top Ten, which currently consists of two Spaniards, a Serb, a Swiss, an Argentinean, a Czech, a Scotsman, a Russian, a Swede, and … an American. (Despite being diagnosed with a mild case of mononucleosis, Roddick has worked his way back to #9 — a testament to his resilience and spirit.) If you want to know why tennis is falling off the map in America, that’s probably why. But aren’t Americans known for their openness and generosity to outsiders? Are we really going to turn our backs on a phenomenon like Nadal just because he’s Spanish? Or ignore a strategic wizard like Scotland’s Andy Murray because he’s, you know, from Scotland? What does this say about us?

So come on, sports fans, show these foreigners a little love. But don’t do it for their sake, do it for your own. The power, speed, and precision of today’s players will astound you. And if you want to see Nadal, a legend still in the making, or catch Federer while he’s still in shouting distance of his prime, not to mention a bunch of other great players, this is your chance. Take it.

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Brendan Bernhard is a contributing editor to the New York Sun, where he was the television critic from 2006-08, and a former staff writer at LA Weekly. He writes about culture, politics, and sports, and is the author of White Muslim (Melville House), a study of converts to Islam in the West.
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