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.