Pro Tennis is a Very Lonely Game
I saw this Twitter post from a recent Pro tennis tournament and my first thought was “that looks awkward, lonely, and uncomfortable?”
— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) June 12, 2017
How many of us like it when people stare at us? Judging us with their little eyes? Yet this man is placed on a pedestal, all by himself, surrounded by nothingness, while people who believe they are sharing in the victory are really staring at someone having a private moment. Why do I say ‘private moment’? Well, what is he doing? Is he performing? Is he interacting with the crowd? Is he on the microphone? No. He’s focused inward, on himself and his feelings, patiently waiting for the ceremony to end so he can be with his loved ones. “I’d rather be somewhere else”… this is what it must feel like to be a really good tennis player. It’s different than being a part of a team where you can share these moments with your friends. This is almost hard to watch. Who dreams of being in that position? Is this what Pro Tennis feels like? And if this is what it feels like to win, how does it feel to lose?
Is Anyone Paying Attention?
Back in 2004 I started my career as a tennis coach at a tennis club in Columbus, OH. A friend invited me to assist with the junior tennis program one afternoon. So what began as a part-time ‘assist’ would become a life-long journey of discovery. I remember consuming tennis wherever I could; TV, magazines, on court, because I wanted to be a part of something. I wanted to be accepted by the tennis community. I did what I could do to “fit in”. It wasn’t what I expected.
Along the way, I tried to share my passion for tennis with the players I worked with, but it didn’t travel well. On many occasions I would ask club members (both kids and adults) if they saw a match on TV. The answer was usually ‘no’. And after the kids in the junior program repeatedly refused to participate in junior tournaments, I stopped encouraging tournament play and instead set out to figure out ‘why not?’. Why are kids ‘too busy’ to play tournaments? Don’t they know that’s how they’re going to improve their ranking? Don’t they know that tournaments are how they’ll be taken seriously? Don’t they understand that junior tournaments today could lead to them playing Pro tennis tomorrow? Isn’t that why they practice twice a week? But they came up with a myriad of excuses: birthday party, vacation, school work, whatever. But it became very clear when a player said they couldn’t enter the tennis tournament because they had a soccer game that day. Here we have a player IN the junior tennis program that would rather play soccer than tennis?!? Hmmm. Maybe tournaments aren’t that important to kids?
Where is the Tennis Community?
When I was a child my parents put me in baseball. My brother and I played from 5 years old all the way through High School. And I remember my little league days with a certain fondness that I believe youth tennis players never have a chance to experience. And that makes me sad.
I remember my baseball coach taking the team to Dairy Queen following the games. I remember the parents watching the game from their lawn chairs and cheering every time a player got a hit. I remember being selected to the All-Star Team and traveling to locations I had never been before. In my mind, when I make a side-by-side comparison of my days
playing baseball and what tennis players experience today, it makes me sad because baseball is a more enjoyable experience than tennis. I believe the soccer player I mentioned earlier would say the same.
Month after month of turnover in the junior tennis program forced me into action. When I realized that no one else was going to do anything to improve the tennis experience, I decided to do it myself. It has proven to be a fool hardy endeavor but one I am comfortable pursuing because, I believe, children are suffering in most tennis programs but the coaches don’t see it. It’s too much work and not enough fun. (Adult tennis is something completely different.) Yes, we can play silly games with prizes and stuff, but there needs to be more. The sport of tennis doesn’t address the more significant needs that humans are born with and need to be met. Needs like security and acceptance and self-esteem. And it all hinges on one simple feature; the same feature that makes tennis unique also makes it unappealing:
Tennis is an individual game.
The Trophy Doesn’t Love You Back
Plain and simple. That’s where it starts. And for some strange reason, the tennis establishment seems to be ignorant of this critical error. Tennis does not appeal to the masses because no one wants to be lonely. So even if you win the tournament, and take home the trophy, you’re still alone. That trophy is not your friend. The trophy doesn’t love you back. Your friends are the ones you abandoned in pursuit of the trophy. Your friends are back at home while you’re out of town traveling to your next tournament. Your friends are hanging out with each other while you spend hours on the court practicing your passing shot… alone. Your friends left you because YOU chose an individual sport. Your friends are hanging out with each other. Who are you spending time with? And none of your friends are watching the tennis matches you are watching because they are not interested in tennis… period! So you can’t even TALK to your friends about tennis. And they’re not waiting for you to come back to town, either.
On the other hand, your friends are all playing team sports like soccer and volleyball. Your friends are hanging out at Pizza Hut because their Team won the championship. Your friends are going to Dairy Queen after the softball game. Are you going with them? Your friends are gearing up for a trip to the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Walt Disney World for the AAU Wrestling competition. Where are you playing this weekend? And with who?
Good Friends Make You Happy
Being alone sucks. That’s why I started All American Team Tennis. Most human beings are afraid of being alone because we have a basic human need for companionship. I think it has something to do with endorphins, or dopamine, or something. When something good happens we look for someone to share the experience with. When something bad happens we look for someone to comfort us, to make the pain go away. Isolation and loneliness are what people
feel before they commit suicide. It is also a form of punishment (ie. “go to your room”, “you’re grounded”, or solitary confinement). But Community can bring a person back to life. Which reminds me: what do people mean when they say “Get a Life”? Just curious.
I wanted to bring a more enjoyable experience to tennis players. It’s an idea that has been tried multiple times to little success because we keep holding on to the things that people are not interested in: tournaments and rankings. High Schools have tennis teams. Colleges have tennis teams. Country clubs have tennis teams. Serious tennis players, those who play 1-2 times a week, play on a team. But tennis on television remains individual. Why? The ratings for tennis are minuscule because Professional tennis LOOKS lonely. And lonely isn’t fun.
Everyone knows that social interaction is the building block of society, allowing for proper development of individuals. And that no one wants to be alone as evidenced by the fact that people gather together at restaurants and concerts. We can do the same for tennis; we can make tennis a gathering place for people of all ages. And you don’t have to pick up a racquet to do it. Tennis needs more fans. And that is why, on this website, you’ll hear about what’s happening in College tennis in addition to the Youth tennis league… Because Life is a Team Sport!
NCAA Div 1 National Champions
If you’ve been following me on Twitter and Facebook then you know that the Virginia Cavaliers men’s tennis team and the Florida Gators Women’s tennis team are the 2017 NCAA Div. 1 National Champions. For the Cavaliers, becoming Back-to-Back-to-Back National Champions (three-peat) puts them in the same conversation as the ’98-’00 Yankees, the ’00-’02 Lakers, and the ’13-’16 UConn Women’s basketball team. For the Gators, this win marks their
7th National Championship, making the Women’s tennis team the most prolific team in Florida Gators history! The closets to the Gators are the Men’s golf and the Women’s gymnastics teams with four championships to their credit. Congratulations.
The NCAA Championships began at regional sites across America as each of the top 16 seeded teams would host the first and second rounds. The Sweet 16, through the Finals, would be held on the campus of the University of Georgia. And in case you are new to College tennis, these are the teams that hosted Regional matches:
Men’s Seeded Teams:
- Wake Forest
- Ohio State
- Oklahoma State
- Texas A&M
Women’s Seeded Teams
- Ohio State
- Texas Tech
- Georgia Tech
- Oklahoma State
- South Carolina
A couple of things jump out at me when I look at this list:
- Do any of these teams look familiar? They should. Many of the biggest Universities in America have not only football and basketball programs, but tennis teams, too!
- Florida isn’t the only place where they play tennis.
- Texas and Oklahoma seem to be the hottest tennis states.
- Lesser known “football” schools like Vanderbilt and Pepperdine have stellar tennis programs.
What is Your College Team Doing?
Watching the NCAA Championship play out over the course of 2 weeks was enjoyable, for me, primarily because of the Season that preceded it. From late January right up to the start of the Championship, players are growing together and developing into a Team. We see this in their interaction on Game Day and on their Instagram posts and Twitter timeline. We watch them struggle to overcome the opposition. We see them encourage each other after a loss. We see them celebrate together after a win. We see them playing practical jokes on each other, clowning in the gym, and being recognized by the student body at basketball games.
And then comes the NCAA National Championship.
A season of struggle all comes down to one, meaningful, tournament. Noticeably different than their professional counterparts, College tennis only has one Major tournament. There are numerous invitationals during the course of the school year, but they are merely exhibitions designed to prepare teams for the NCAA Championship. In fact, there’s an individual tournament for both singles and doubles following the NCAA Championships, but by then the crowds have gone home, moving on to the College World Series, or something.
Tennis Night in America
Here’s the point: tennis as a Team Sport is infinitely more enjoyable than tournaments. When cities like Charlottesville (Virginia) and Nashville (Vanderbilt) and Malibu (Pepperdine) have a team to gather around, the sport takes root in that territory. When the Oklahoma State Men’s tennis team makes the news it brings attention to tennis in Stillwater. When the Texas Tech Women’s tennis team visits the local Children’s Hospital in Lubbock the Red Raiders become a greater part of the Community. When the citizens have a tennis product they can be proud of they begin to display their tennis proudly. Much like the fans of the Ohio State Buckeyes football team (me) everyone knows where we belong. We are Buckeyes. We say it loud. We say it proud. And if you’ve got a problem with that, we can take it outside!
But seriously, Team Sports inspire a passion not found in individual sports. Which is why professional tennis SHOULD BE a team sport like it is in College. Just imagine what Sundays in the spring would be look like if it was Tennis Night in America; a day for the Community to embrace the local sports franchise, gather at the sports stadium, wear matching jerseys and t-shirts, and cheer in unison for their Home Town team. And when the Championships come around, tickets go on sale for $1,000! Can you see it?
We don’t have it yet, but I’ll keep dreaming it until we do. In the meantime, you can help me by supporting your local University; attend their matches, buy a hat and t-shirt, take pictures with the team and post them on Facebook. Make College tennis a part of your Community and let’s see how far we can take this thing!
There is a problem plaguing tennis and it stems from the persistent use of the ‘tournament’ as our chosen method of delivery: the exclusivity of tennis has led to America turning its back on the game.
Americans are missing from upper levels of professional tennis.
American television ratings are minuscule compared to other sports.
Public tennis courts are empty.
And College tennis teams consist of rosters that are 50% foreign-born players… if they still have a team! If the sport doesn’t adapt, it could go away, completely. What are we going to do?!?
Keep in mind: I am only speaking of the American cultural landscape; because this is where I live.
Team Sports = Community
A look at the top 10 most popular sports in America illustrates something very interesting: the Top 5 sports are Team Sports, while the bottom 5 are individual sports.
Individual sports such as wrestling, gymnastics, and track realized this and made the switch to implementing their own teams. Gymnasiums and studios across the country have formed wrestling and gymnastic schools dedicated to training athletes together. And when the school enters a competition… everyone competes together. Participants wear matching uniforms to represent the gym where they train, parents buy matching t-shirts to support their son/daughter’s team, they even travel in a van wrapped in the logo of the school. They have, in essence, created their own Community that every student is now a part of.
Humans are social beings, requiring the company of others to bring out the best in themselves. We seek out people that we have something in common with to avoid being alone. On the other hand, tennis players are taken away from the group to train and compete individually. This kind of isolation leads to separation not only physically, but emotionally and socially. Tennis players have become society’s outcasts. And as a result… so has the sport. This is the reason why so many students are unaware of their school’s tennis team, along with the other problems identified above.
We Have A Choice
People choose to participate in the things that make them happy. They’ll even watch others having a good time if it makes them happy. The same cannot be said for tennis. Unfortunately, children are often forced into tennis lessons because their parents want them to play. This leads to children choosing to play something other than tennis. And with this kind of exposure to tennis, society chooses not to watch it, either.
To remedy this situation tennis must become a greater part of the Community. It must become the sport embraced by society as a whole. And the only way to do that is to promote tennis as a game that is played/watched IN community with other people; meaning we have to embrace the Team as our primary means of distribution. Tennis is NOT a game that you or I play, it is a game that we play Together. But more importantly, it is a game that we WATCH together.
Every major metropolitan city in America has at least one sports franchise: from baseball to football to soccer to hockey. They build stadiums, sell tickets and jerseys, and hire people to work on Game Day. The team is embraced by the Community as evidenced by the campaign to bring a team in, and the outcry when a team leaves. The team is as much a member of the Community as City Hall.
If tennis is to remain a part of American culture it must embrace the Team philosophy from beginning to end; from recreational to professional. Otherwise it will be lost and forgotten, on the outside looking in on the overcrowded marketplace of activities.
On April 12, 2016, 100,00 fans packed the Horseshoe in Columbus, OH to watch the Ohio State Buckeyes take on the Ohio State Buckeyes in their annual Spring Game. Yeah! The Buckeyes played each other! On the same day, the Georgia Bulldogs set an SEC record for Spring Game attendance with 93,000 spectators. On Sunday September 4, 2016 the US Open set a record for attendance with 25,000 pouring through the turnstiles for the evening session. Combined with the 40,000 who attended the morning session, Sunday would become the biggest attendance ever with a total attendance of 65,797. Keep in mind: this took place over the course of 48 matches on 15 courts and would include men’s, women’s, doubles, and juniors.
I may be the only one thinking it, but I’m not impressed. If attendance is important enough to keep track of, report on, and set records for, shouldn’t tennis’ numbers
be on par with the biggest sports in America? Shouldn’t tennis attract spectators the way football does? Or the way basketball does? Or the way soccer does? Shouldn’t a city of 8.4 million people (New York City) draw more than 65,000 for the “Super Bowl” of tennis, the “Granddaddy of them all”? Shouldn’t tennis draw more than 65,000 over the course of 48 matches played on 15 courts? That’s only 4300 per court, or 1300 per match. What would the numbers look like if there were only 6 courts instead of 15? 24 matches instead of 48?
If one football scrimmage can draw 100,000, I believe an entire tennis tournament should be able to do the same.
Popularity is determined by a number of different things including (but not exclusive to) audience (see above), participation, television ratings, and word-of-mouth. I’ve already touched on audience, now onto participation: the USTA believes there are 30 million tennis players in the United States. How they came up with that number, I don’t know, but statista.com says that 24.7 million people played basketball, 18.05 million people played football, and 11.12 million people played soccer in 2016 and these are some of the most popular sports in America. Now ask yourself: Does it feel like tennis is bigger than either one of these three sports? And is a sport’s popularity determined by participation? Or something else?
A look at the television ratings for the US Open gives a very clear picture of the interest in our sport from the nation as a whole. An organization like Major League Soccer topped out at 1.4 million viewers for the MLS Cup, which is on par with the 1.7 million people who watched the US Open Men’s Final. But what about a ‘UFC on FOX’ card on a random Saturday is December that draws 4.8 million? Or the NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors that drew 30.8 million viewers? Or the Super Bowl between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers reaching 114.4 million viewers? What do these numbers say about tennis’ popularity?
Those are the television ratings, and those are important, but what does this mean to those of us on the local level? Are people talking to each other about tennis? Are they buying merchandise of their favorite player/team? Are they getting together with friends at the local sports bar to watch the big game? People talk to each other about the things they are passionate about, both good and bad. Are they talking about tennis? Ask around. The answer is ‘No’.
Chuck Sullivan, a member of the family who owned the New England Patriots before Robert Kraft bought them, says that “the professional sports team is a community asset.”
But what does that mean? It means that the team belongs to ALL OF US, not just one person, and is the reason Robert Kraft did everything in his power to keep the New England Patriots in New England. But how many times have we heard a professional tennis player say they only play for themselves? In my humble opinion, that is self-centered, self-serving, and one of the many reasons the public, at large, is unable to identify with tennis players and the game they play. So while cities across the country are building new stadium homes for their sports franchises, tennis tournaments bounce around from city to city, never remaining in one place for more than a week or two. How are the citizens supposed to wrap their arms around the sport when the players are only here long enough to cash the check?
When a professional sports league brings a franchise to a city, the players on the team become a part of the community. They represent the community on the field of competition. They live among the people of the community. Their kids go to the same schools and play for the same little league teams as your kids. They shop at the same grocery stores that you shop at. They eat at the same restaurants you eat at. They visit the same doctors you visit. They live in your neighborhood. They become one of US. And they’re here to help MY TEAM win.
The same can not be said for tennis tournaments. Professional tennis players are globetrotters, visitors, tourists, drifters, nomads; people who swoop into town once a year to receive our adoration, stay in our best hotels, eat at our finest restaurants, avoid the public as much as possible because they have to focus on their play, take their prize money, and move onto the next city. It’s no wonder tennis does so poorly in attendance and ratings when compared to other, mainstream sports. But there is a better way.
The Home Town team belongs to the Home Town. And the players on the team belong to the home town, too. And we currently have, in very large numbers, teams and players representing the people of their Home Towns: College Tennis Teams. In South Florida, alone, there are the Hurricanes, Owls, Seahawks, Sailfish, Panthers,
and Fighting Knights. Not to mention the teams in other major cities around the state and the country. All of them playing on behalf of the students, alumni, and citizens of their home town. They live in our neighborhood. They go to our school. They shop at our stores. They support our other sports teams. THEY are one of US.
So let’s support them in what they do for us. Attend their matches. Cheer them on. Buy their souvenirs. Because they’re not just playing for themselves… they’re playing for all of us!
High School is a memorable time in all of our lives; the bright future, the friends, the sports, the parties, there’s nothing quite like it. The same goes for High School Tennis. For many players it is their only opportunity to experience team sports on that level. Maybe they’re not mean enough for football or tall enough for basketball. Maybe the thought of running cross country makes you break out in hives. Whatever the reason, High School tennis teams are eager to receive the incoming class of Freshman every September.
But there’s a problem.
Schools all across South Florida are gearing up for the 2016 season , but something is missing in their preparation. Every team experiences it, many have no way to address it, it hinders the sport in such a way it makes it hard to win: is it a lack of talented tennis players. All of Florida has been exposed to tennis in one way or another: elementary school gym class or tennis lessons at the local tennis club. Unfortunately, just as many decide to try something else when they find tennis to be boring. So when these players finally get to High School and have to choose a sport, and see tennis as their only option, tennis coaches are left to teach the fundamentals rather than coaching their team to victory.
What are we going to do? Ask yourself these questions:
Question 1: Why do players decide not to continue playing tennis after being introduced to the game as a child?
Question 2: How does tennis compare to other youth sports? And…
Question 3: What can be done to keep kids playing tennis or to bring players from other sports over to the tennis court?
Former USTA Florida President, Bob Pfaender, recently penned an essay outlining junior participation in High School tennis vs. tournament tennis. According to USTA President Dave Haggerty, 355,000 juniors play High School tennis… 36,396 played one USTA tournament a year. That’s a 10% success rate!!! Meaning 90% of High School players play High School tennis, exclusively. There lies the key to popularity. If the goal is to play on your High School tennis team, wouldn’t it make sense to play on a team in Middle School, too?
‘Chemistry’ is an often overlooked key to the success of a team. Players must learn to cooperate and to communicate if they have any plans of winning. Unfortunately, tennis tournaments, while developing a player’s individual abilities (and ego), do very little to promote community, camaraderie, cooperation, or teamwork. That is what makes All American Team Tennis special.
Following in the footsteps of College tennis, All American Team Tennis places the team front and center, leaving tournaments as an option for the summer break. Our players train together, travel together, and compete together to develop unity, and chemistry, among the teammates. It is the kind of ‘Team’ attitude High School coaches are looking for when players arrive for tryouts. They are looking for players who are considerate of others, who assist others when they need it, who encourage their teammates. Of course, coaches are looking for talented players but more importantly, they’re looking for TEAM players. Because that is the key to victory.
Get your High School career started on the right track. Join All American Team Tennis and see how much fun tennis can be when you play on a team.
All American Team Tennis… Because Life is a Team Sport! GO TEAM!
All American Team Tennis is a grassroots organization dedicated to uniting the tennis industry. Similar to other youth sports, our Youth Tennis League creates a real feeling of community in an otherwise insular sport. And we do this with a very simple concept we like to call: the Tennis Team.
The American sports landscape is populated with numerous Teams from a myriad of sports: football, basketball, soccer, even lacrosse. We love team sports because humans are social animals: we function better in groups. Our Youth Tennis League is the key to revitalizing the dying sport of tennis.
In 2010 we began conducting our brand of tennis at the Palm Springs, FL Parks Department. We are now introducing this to other Parks Departments around South Florida and encouraging them to be a part of the network. The growth of All American Team Tennis presents a very positive opportunity for everyone: more teams, more players, more Referees, and more coaches.
Click here to see a list of opportunities to support All American Team Tennis. Than click the image to be taken to our GoFundMe page.
Help us keep kids playing tennis by donating to our campaign. We’ve got a long way to go, but with your help, we can make it!