Parent: “I’m calling to get information on your tennis lessons. I have a 6 year old daughter. How much are they?”
Coach: “First, has she ever played before?”
Parent: “No. But she did some gymnastics.”
Coach: “That’s a very good place to start. That means she’s athletic. And don’t worry, most of our players are playing tennis for the first time. In fact, many of our players had never heard of tennis until their parents signed them up. So she’ll fit right in. We start on Monday and the cost is $XX.”
Parent: “Thank you. We’ll see you Monday.”
(Later that evening, after the child has come home from school, the parent approaches the child about playing tennis.)
Parent: “I saw they’re offering tennis lessons at the rec center. Do you want to play?”
Child: “I don’t know.”
Parent: “I spoke to the instructor today and he told me there would be other children there who are new to the game, too, so you should fit right in.”
Child shrugs their shoulders.
Parent: “Well, I’m going to sign you up to see if you like it. We’ve got to find a way to get you out of the house. If you don’t like it we can always try something else.Ok?”
Child: “I guess so.”
I imagine this conversation taking place on a regular basis because no matter how many calls I get asking about “tennis lessons”, 1 out of 5 actually show up for practice. But why would they decide not to play? Was it something WE did? How could it be? They never showed up to see what we’re all about. And seeing as they know so little about the game, why won’t they entertain the idea of playing tennis? I can only assume that tennis doesn’t interest them. At all.
My childhood was spent playing baseball, football, and basketball. In college I tried intramural ice hockey. I’ve coached baseball and hockey. I even dabbled in lacrosse back when I worked at a sporting goods store in Ohio. Along the way I’ve attended a great many sporting events such as high school football (I was in the marching band), Minor League baseball, Blue Jackets’ hockey, as well as the Western & Southern Tennis Open in Cincinnati. Now, I know tennis people don’t like to compare tennis to other sports because they believe it is unlike every other sport. But that could not be further from the truth. “What do you mean” you might be saying? “What does the Miami Open have in common with the Miami Heat or the Cincinnati Bengals”? Spectators. (Or rather the lack of spectators.) And from a spectator’s point-of-view the in-game experience of a tennis match pales in comparison to an Ohio State Buckeyes football game.
In an article written back in 2008, the USTA claims to have “made a financial commitment to growing and developing tennis in the U.S.” But when you read it carefully it states that while 30 million people played tennis that year, the USTA only has 740,000 members. Wait a minute: the governing body of tennis, that sanctions leagues and tournaments, has a membership of 2.4% of all participation?!? And how do we know the 30 million number is accurate? Where did that number come from? Because when you look at the television ratings for the 2014 U.S. Open, 30 million sounds veeery suspect.
If these numbers are to be believed, there is a fundamental disconnect between those who play tennis and those who watch tennis. What could be the cause of such a sizable disparity? Why would someone choose to play tennis but not watch it on television or attend a match in person? Why have so many tennis tournaments been relegated to the desolate wasteland of ESPN3? And why does it look like tennis stadiums are empty when I see them on TV? Shouldn’t people who play a game be inspired to watch the game they play? Maybe to get a few pointers? Learn something new? Or simply enjoy a night out on the town? Or invite some friends over for a viewing party?
Did you know: according to USTA Florida president, Bob Pfaender, a meager 10% of High School tennis players play one (1) tennis tournament per year, leaving 90% who play for the Team, exclusively. Why is there no interest in tennis tournaments? And on the club level, the greatest participation at most tennis clubs are in the Leagues and Socials. Drive by the tennis club in the morning and you’ll find it full of seniors and stay-at-home moms, but in the afternoon the courts are empty. And if you’re looking for something fun to do, stop by on a Friday or Saturday evening for the “pizza and wine” social (I made up the name, but you get the point). So you could say that 90% of country club members also play in groups. Why are so few people entering tennis tournaments? Seeing as tournaments are all that’s being shown on television, shouldn’t it inspire more people to play more tournaments? A better question would be “Why are we constantly being fed singles tournaments when 90+% of all participants play tennis in groups or teams?” There is a fundamental disconnect between the tennis fan and how tennis is marketed.
I run a youth sports league called All American Team Tennis (you’ve probably heard of it). And much like the baseball and hockey teams I’ve coached over the years, our kids practice twice a week with Game Day on Saturday. And while I have my own set of goals for my players, I realize that they have their own personal goals, too. So my job is to meet them where they are in order to bring them along for the journey. So what are their goals? Observing the players during practice allows me to find out where their heads are at. I see how much they enjoy playing games like Caterpillar and Fruit Salad (ages 6-10) or King of the Court and Rodeo (ages 11+) versus drills like 2 forehands across the baseline. I also observe their interaction with me versus the other players. This has led to the conclusion that children would rather play games* with their friends* than run drills or compete on Game Day. Believe it or not, the majority of my players enjoy practice more than competition, which is strange because, apparently, they don’t see Caterpillar as competition. Hmmmm.
Given the thousands of hours spent by the USTA getting children to play, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to play professionally… wait a minute. I’m sorry. I’m only going to divert for a second. But shouldn’t professional athletes be getting paid to play, rather than paying to play? Isn’t that what it means to be a professional? Good job, tennis!
Anyway, given the time and effort we put into getting people to play tennis, and considering the results of said time and effort, why don’t we try something else? I have an idea: How about we spend more time and money encouraging people to watch tennis? Let’s create a product that engages the fan and adds to the in-game experience in order to fill our stadiums with people. Because an empty stadium looks bad on TV. Then when people are talking about tennis, more people will end up watching it, in person or on TV. And with more people watching it, you’ll see the participation numbers going up. I know what you’re thinking “I went to the Miami Tennis Open and had a great time. The atmosphere was electric!” Well, good for you. But if the experience was sooooo great, why do we get it only once a year? Why do I have to share tennis with the rest of the world? As a spectator, I want more tennis. Roland Garros is a great event, bit it’s in FRANCE! I’m in Florida. Do the math. And speaking of “electric”, there’s plenty of energy all around the tournament grounds, but what about in the stands? How’s the energy in the stadium? And why is the chair umpire always telling the fans to “be quiet”? Don’t you want the fans to make noise? Isn’t that what fans are there to do? Or are the players so sensitive they can’t handle a little noise from the people they’ve taken money from to watch them play?
When I attend a basketball/football/soccer/hockey game, the arena is noisy for 3 hours. And fans will do their best to become a part of the action on the court. Is it sportsmanlike to distract a player while shooting free throws? Who cares! It’s fun! And when I go to a baseball game, between innings, someone with a microphone comes out onto the field with a kid from the stands to play some silly game. What does that have to do with baseball? Who cares? It’s fun! Why doesn’t tennis do this? Why don’t we get fans to participate during the match like in baseball?
I remember attending a hockey game where prior to resurfacing the ice they brought out 2 pee wee hockey teams to play each other in front of the entire arena. Can you imagine the butterflies the kids must have felt playing in front of so many people? I guarantee it was an experience they will always remember. See, I’m talking about it today! But as long as we conduct these pointless one week tournaments, full of players we don’t know, and keep the spectators behind glass so as not to disturb the players’ concentration, the sport will continue to be ignored by 90+% of Americans. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There is an alternative.
College tennis teams such as the Miami Hurricanes, the Ohio State Buckeyes, or the North Carolina Tarheels are full of players who dream of one day playing tennis professionally. They attended the tennis academies, traveled to all of the junior tournaments, and spent thousands of dollars doing it, much like every other player on the tour. The difference is their parents must have run out of money and could not afford the $200,000 a year to play tennis professionally (Professional? Really?) These players are just as strong, just as fast, just as smart as any player on the tour. Many of them even have professional rankings. Attending a College tennis match is much more exciting because you’re so close to the action, too. I mean, you stand beside the fence that borders the court! How cool is that!?! And following the matches the players are available for pictures and autographs. Try getting Sharapova’s autograph as she comes off the practice court. Her bodyguard will shove you to the ground!
We can bridge the gap between tennis and its fans by putting Team Tennis front-and-center. 90+% of America plays tennis on a team so it just makes sense to market the sport to them and their friends. College tennis is a Team sport full of world-class tennis talent so I encourage you to take in a match. There are more opportunities to do so as there has to be a college close to your home. In fact, I attended 9 matches between February and May this year. I saw the Miami Hurricanes, Central Florida Knights, Florida Atlantic Owls, Palm Beach Atlantic Sailfish, and Keiser Seahawks play this season. I even took some of my players with me (everyone loves a field trip) because they play on a team, too. Their season is 4 months long and they even have an NCAA Championship at the end (Men’s bracket. Women’s bracket). It’s everything professional sports are supposed to be. Now it’s tennis’ turn.
The University of Miami Hurricanes Women’s tennis team will meet the North Carolina Tarheels for the third time this season, but this time it’s in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Championship. On the two previous occasions, UNC would come out on top; 4-0 on Feb. 7 and 5-2 on April 4. Pretty solid victories for the #2 team in the nation, but that was then and this is now. The Hurricanes are coming off of 2 solid wins in Regional play and playing some of their best tennis this season, accumulating ACC honors like a bookshelf collects dust, effortlessly.
And leading the charge for the ‘Canes is the ITA Southeast Region Player to Watch, Stephanie Wagner. Wagner would finish the season as the 11-th ranked singles player in the country and be selected to the All-ACC First Team. She has a 13-3 singles record at the No. 1 position, and when paired with Senior Lina Lileikite, the two of them would rank as the no. 17 doubles team in the nation. Stephanie would be the last one standing in the Hurricanes match against Ole Miss in the second round of the Tournament. After taking the first set 6-1, she would go down 3-5 in the second. It looked like a third set would be necessary, but Wagner moved into second gear, rattling off 4 straight games, and taking the straight set victory 6-1, 7-5. The win would send her team into the Sweet 16 for the 10th consecutive year.
In the no. 2 singles spot is the freshman out of Ireland, Sinead Lohan. Sinead would also earn All-ACC honors, placing 10th in the voting to make the second team. Lohan is the first player in Hurricanes history to be selected ACC Freshman of the Year; a sizeable accomplishment on a team with such history. Sinead currently sits as the #37-ranked singles player in the country in singles and with her partner, Wendy Zhang, possess a 9-4 record in doubles. In the first round of the Championship, against North Florida, Lohan downed her opponent 6-1, 6-1 and was the first player off the court. Against Ole Miss she routed her opponent 6-1, 6-3 and would, again, be the first one off the court. Her explosive play was too much for them to handle.
But wait, there’s more! the Hurricanes have a total of 5 nationally-ranked players compared to the Tarheels’ 4: #11 Wagner, #37 Lohan, #83 Clementina Riobueno, #108 Wendy Zhang, #115 Lina Lileikite. And in a best-of-seven match like those played in College tennis, the #2 team can fall at any time… like today at 10am against the Miami Hurricanes.
For more on your favorite Florida college tennis teams follow us on Twitter @aateamtennis. GO TEAM!
A long time ago, when All American Team Tennis was just getting started, we would award our players with trophies; nothing too grand, just the oval, pewter plates with crossed checkered flags on them. Since then we’ve graduated to championship rings because they’re WAAAAY cooler.
But I remember stopping by the trophy shop to pick up the name plates and while I was waiting, a man with a little girl came into the shop. You could tell they were tennis players by the way they were dressed, and by the trophy she would receive. The man spoke to the clerk, asking for the trophy they had ordered. The clerk went into the back and came out with a pillar trophy, no more than a foot tall, and handed it to the little girl. Then the man (who may have been her coach) and the clerk looked at the girl and said “YAY! Good Job!”
Seeing as I was there for the same reason, except I was getting awards for a Team to be recognized at an Awards Ceremony, I immediately drew comparisons. I would never say anything to them in the shop, but I held onto the image in the back of my mind because it’s one of the reasons I run my tennis program as a tennis League. Community.
All too often I hear tennis players complain about how much the people around them get on their nerves: How they prefer singles because there’s no one to make them lose. I often hear from adults who say the conflict of teammates in other sports drove them to tennis. Which begs the question: are you running FROM something or running TO something. Are you playing tennis because you wish to be left alone? Are you playing singles because of your inability to get along with other people? Listen, no matter where you go in life, there will be other people there. And like it or, you need them as much as they need you. Like it or not, we all need each other.
I watch as much college tennis as I can because I prefer the synergy of people working together, like in football or basketball. And the way college tennis matches are conducted can be very exciting. They start with 3 courts of doubles and the team who wins 2 out of 3 wins one point for the team (we’ll talk about that debacle in another post). Then they move onto the round of singles where many of the doubles players, but not all of them, will get a court to themselves. Six matches, all being played at the same time, until one team wins a total of 4 points, including the doubles point. Meaning, if you won the doubles point, all you need are three singles, but if you lost the doubles, you need four singles. It’s a ‘Best-of-seven’ much like the NBA Playoffs, or Major League Baseball. It is this combination of individual achievement paired with team accomplishment that I find intriguing. And over the course of 7 games, either team could win. But even more important than winning and losing is the feeling of Community that develops between players because they all depend on each other. When they need something they have someone to turn to, and they are also there when someone needs them. And the celebration when they win is better than anything I’ve seen on the pro circuit (why are they lying on the ground?)
That is why I found the scene at the trophy store so sad. This little girl had achieved something no one else had done and she had no one to share it with. In her respective division she had climbed to the summit of Mt. Everest and the person at the top, waiting to congratulate her, was the gift shop owner selling mini Everest snow globes and souvenir pins.
Yes, the girl received a trophy as a reminder of what she had done, but who’s going to see it? Will she take it to school and show her friends or will they come to her house? What if her friends don’t play tennis? What if her friends DO play tennis and she beat them in the tournament? Will she show her parents, teacher, family? How does it feel to accomplish something and have no one to share it with?
Tennis is full of players who believe they are superior to every other player, including players in other sports. But how can this be when the tennis “experts” tell us the reason we don’t have an American at #1 in the world is because “America’s best athletes are playing other sports”? LeBron James, Peyton Manning, Clayton Kershaw could have been tennis players… if the sport were more appealing. So this holier-than-thou attitude of tennis players is simply misplaced. It also makes it hard to become friends with other people. And what is life if you live it alone?
I enjoy playing tennis because I like hitting things. That’s it. In fact, I believe WE ALL enjoy hitting things. But it has to be about more than just hitting things if we are going to get back on TV (ESPN3 doesn’t count as TV). So why don’t more people play/watch tennis? Ask the little girl in the trophy shop.
Florida State Assistant Coach, Susie
In Defense of College Coaches
The purpose of college is to train you for future work. Whether it’s as a teacher or an engineer, colleges build upon what you learned in high school to train you for a better future. The same is true for professional athletes, only your instructors are your coaches: offensive coordinator, pitching coach, strength and conditioning coaches, etc. When a high school football player is choosing a college they often consider the things that will help them achieve their goal of playing in the NFL. They consider the location, yes, the history, of course, but let’s not forget the coaches. Is this coach the right coach to get you to the pros? How many other players have they gotten to the pros? This is one of the considerations of college recruiting in sports like football and basketball.
What about college tennis? How many college coaches send their players to the pros? How many college coaches go pro, themselves? Is college even on the path to the pros? Unfortunately, the path to the pros doesn’t go through college. So what about the coaches? If a coach’s value to the university is determined by their team’s accomplishments, and the path to the pros goes around college, how much is a college tennis coach really worth? Coaches are not responsible for a player’s academics, that is in the realm of the professor. They don’t partake of other college extra-curriculars (parties), either. And now we see they can’t get a player to the pros. So what, exactly, do they do? What is their value? What is their worth? Are they nothing more than after school, junior program, tennis instructors, offering a way to pay for college to their small group of players?
Until professional tennis becomes a team sport, colleges and college coaches will remain in a sort of limbo, between accepting high school players who have given up the dream to play professionally, and a professional sport not interested in college talent. It is a situation that must be remedied for not only the game as a whole, but specifically for college tennis coaches.
Consider, for a moment, what a college tennis coach is being asked to do: take a group of players, from different parts of the country, sometimes the world, bring them all together, and get them to play as a team. This is a monumental task considering the tennis environment and players’ attitudes. Tennis players a raised from a very young age to believe they are in it only for themselves, everyone is an opponent, a doubles partner is more of an anchor than a sail, and the best players play singles, while the leftovers play doubles. Now… take those players and make a team out of them, produce a winning record to get into the Conference championships, and eventually the NCAA championships. Good luck. And what do they get in return? A tangible lack of respect from society-at-large because they coach a Team of players rather than an individual. But I would argue that the college tennis coach is an even more accomplished coach because of everything they are asked to do.
The only solution to this problem is to abandon the tour and bring tennis back home. Establish professional tennis in America as a team sport and allow college coaches to work with the next generation of professional tennis talent. Recruit from High Schools, get drafted by the Pros, and watch the sport explode in America. And who knows… maybe your favorite college tennis coach will get called up to the Big Leagues, too! GO TEAM!
For more on the world of Team Tennis follow us on Twitter @aateamtennis and Like our Facebook page – All American Team Tennis.
New to the Miami Hurricanes roster for the 2015 season, Dane Dunlap signs a National Letter of Intent on Tuesday. Head coach Mario Rincon announced “We are very excited to have signed Dane to the incoming class. Dane’s power and athleticism will add a lot to our team in singles and doubles play.” At the Junior level, Dane became the 25th best player in Canada in singles and #21 in doubles. Originally from Washago, Ontario, Canada and only 17 years old, Dane could potentially contribute from the start, stepping in for departing seniors Wilfredo Gonzalez and Henrique Tsukamoto.
The Hurricanes roster is full of young talent, with 7 out of the 10 roster spots taken by freshman, which could explain their recent difficulties. The Hurricanes started the season ranked #52, thanks to a strong finish to the 2014 season, and would fall out of the rankings in mid February. But as this team continues to mature things can only get better.