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Why Have Americans Lost Interest in Tennis?

To lay my soiled cards on the table, I like tennis. And the charge one hears all too often from those who disparage it — that it’s a fey, elitist, country-club sport unsuited to red-blooded Americans (at least since red-blooded American men stopped winning majors, anyway) — simply doesn’t hold water. If you think it’s such a pansy sport, you should try playing it.

It is true, however, that the game’s origins are elitist and aristocratic. The place to see how tennis, or “Real Tennis”  began, is Hampton Court outside London. It was an indoor amusement. Among its early “stars” — the Nadals and Federers of their day — were fellows with names like King Henry VIII and Louis X, neither of whom could be described as an Average Joe. On the other hand, the least aristocratic sport in the world is soccer, which can be played with a tin can, and we’re not crazy about that either.

Oddly, one of tennis’ many problems in the States is that it could do with people a bit more like Henry VIII. You know — wives, mistresses, intrigues, gossip, executions. Maybe the hitch is that the top players (on the male side, anyway) are way too well behaved by contemporary standards, and where’s the fun in that? There are no reports of tennis stars raping groupies in hotels, brandishing guns, injecting steroids, tattooing their foreheads, or — like several players on France’s national soccer team — getting it on with underage hookers. Nor is there a John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors around to scream at linesmen, inform them they’re “abortions,” etc., although Serena Williams did do her part for the distaff side at last year’s US Open by threatening to ram a tennis ball down a lineswoman’s throat. To be precise: “I swear to God, I’ll f***ing take this ball and shove it down your f***ing throat.” Well, at least she believes in God.

Until he lost his No. 1 ranking to Spaniard Rafael Nadal this summer, the dominant figure in the sport since 2003 — the most dominant in any sport, as even Tiger Woods admitted — has been the Swiss Roger Federer, known for his effortless, nonchalant play. In his best-selling autobiography, Open, Andre Agassi gave us a brief glimpse of what it was like to face him at his peak: “Federer comes onto the court looking like Cary Grant. I almost wonder if he’s going to play in an ascot and a smoking jacket. He’s permanently smooth, I’m constantly rattled, even when serving at 40-15.” Nonetheless, Agassi made Federer work, taking him to a third-set tie-breaker, at which point Federer “went to a place” Agassi claimed not to “recognize” and won 7-1. Perhaps he entered a fourth dimension, leaving the American Barbara Streisand dubbed a “Zen master” stuck in a retro space-time warp.

Americans used to revere men like Cary Grant. Some still regard him as the paragon of Hollywood actors, the ideal of urbane masculinity. Was Agassi suggesting Federer actually looked like Grant? (He does have a dimple.) Or was he drawing a connection between the elegance of Federer’s shot-making and Grant’s debonair onscreen persona? Either way, he was pointing to a kind of ultimate perfection. Do Americans still go for it? Here we come to a crossroads. Among tennis fans, in America and elsewhere, Federer is idolized. But in America, he has almost entirely failed to pop the tennis bubble and penetrate the world of sports-fandom in general. He didn’t even make the cover of Sports Illustrated until 2009, by which time he had equaled Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slam titles. He’s since added two more, and probably had more right to be named the athlete of the last decade than Tiger Woods, to whom he came second.

There is something feline and meticulous about Federer’s style, one of refined violence, that may be insufficiently “in your face” for most American sports fans. But at least he has never come across like a smug soulless corporate money-machine like Woods, with his BlackBerry full of hookers. He even has a made-to-order American nick name, “Fed-Ex,” as in Federal/Federer Express. For years the smartly turned out “Fed-Ex” has repeatedly beaten America’s No. 1 player, Andy Roddick, who never takes the court without a baseball cap, wears sweat-soaked shirts that might have been purchased from a blind tailor, and frequently serves the ball at 140 mph. (His fastest serve has been recorded at 155 mph – a world record.) Despite his “shock and awe” tactics, and commendable work ethic, he has lost four Grand Slam finals to Federer, and his overall record against him in 21 matches is a dismal 2-19.

A few weeks ago it was noted on Mike & Mike in the Morning, the popular ESPN talk show, that Roddick, a former world No. 1, and the last American tennis player to win a major (he won the U.S. Open in 2003), had dropped out of the Top Ten for the first time in eight years. The miniscule press coverage this garnered (only six other Americans are in the top 100 on the men’s side, with Roddick’s nearest compatriots, John Isner, Mardy Fish, and Sam Querrey, coming in at 19, 20, and 21) told you everything about the sport’s national decline.

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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