With the strength of a boxer, the endurance of a marathoner, the flexibility of a gymnast, and the hand-eye-coordination of a golfer, tennis players must take the court five to seven times to win a tournament. Tennis is as taxing on the body as football, and while head injury is rare, ankle, knee and shoulder injuries are plentiful, as are many other life-altering injuries. The best tennis players are mentally tough and emotionally intelligent. They can focus and play their best even when their opponent has match point. On the court, alone, a player must confront not only their opponent, but their fears on the biggest stages.
Tennis is the ultimate sport! It requires high levels of physical, mental and emotional strength. Played on grass, clay and hard-courts globally, tennis is a dynamic and entertaining sport, yet it has never been a very popular American sport save the needle-moving Williams Sisters. Serena’s twenty-second Grand Slam and Calendar Slam Campaign pushed tennis to the front of our news feeds again. This athlete, tennis phenom, deliverer of viral splits and perfectly placed serves has been part of the American consciousness since she and her sister crip-walked onto the tennis tour twenty years ago straight out of Compton. Her popularity is world-wide. There are no tennis stars like Serena, though her ‘rivals’ have tested her and even bested her a time or two: Venus, Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic and Victoria Azarenka. Of course the loquacious Roger Federer, holder of the most beautiful strokes and footwork, is also special to the sport as is Rafael Nadal, God of Clay and Tommy Hilfiger ads. Even Mike and Bob Bryan with their mirror image almost psychic game and chest bumping celebrations hold a special place in tennis hearts.
The sport has only ever been as popular as its stars, whose careers rarely extend beyond ten years of active and influential years. Within the next twelve to twenty-four months many of these stars will likely retire and future tennis stars do not appear quite ready for the task. While Muguruza, Keys, Halep, Bencic, Pliskova, Stephens, Vandeweghe, Nishikori, Kyrigos, Sock, Raonic, Dimitrov, Pospisil, and Coric are talented, they lack either the experience or personality (magnetism) of yesterday’s or today’s tennis stars. For a sport that has chosen to brand itself with its players and their on-court personalities, this presents a major problem.
All sports have highs and lows in popularity as fans’ needs and lives change, but for a sport to survive and thrive, it has to become ubiquitous in the culture. This simply isn’t the case with tennis. There are no sports shows devoted to tennis, most people don’t know much about the sport beyond one or two tennis personalities and tennis isn’t often name-dropped in TV shows, movies and music like other sports. Tennis’ popularity or lack thereof is measured by online searches , revenue and most importantly TV ratings. Americans are generally casual fans because TV ratings only soar when Serena, Venus, Federer or Nadal play.
Tennis fandom is niche and often rabid, but mass appeal has eluded the sport. Some may argue that the sport’s European origin, Australian and British popularity, international player roster, fan demographics, especially income, and the pace of matches are cause for its lack of popularity. However, it’s the sport’s lack of accessibility that has led to its lack of popularity in America.
When I started writing this piece, I planned it as a single column examining the sport’s lack of popularity in America. After many weeks, I began to wonder if the sport was satisfied with its niche status or if it was willing to address core issues to achieve popularity, mass appeal. This five-part series will address some of the issues that thwarts the sport’s popularity.
- Game, Set and Match
- Tennis Fandom: Niche and Rabid
- Accessibility: Not Relegated to Availability
- Organization: Fan, Player and Sport Well Being
- Culture: Transparency, Criticism and Equality