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!
One of the things I hear more than anything else when I invite people to play tennis is: I don’t think I’m ready for that, yet. It’s almost as if they are afraid of tennis. Can this be true? I find it strange, when you consider how complicated other sports can be with all of the moving parts. Every player has to be in the right spot, every player has a specific job to do, and if one player is out of position or does the wrong thing, it creates a domino effect. Contrast that with tennis where we don’t have specific assignments or run plays, where there’s only one person on the court, and that one person is in total control of what they do. Tennis is so simple, I’m surprised more people would rather play ice/roller hockey! Why is that?
Sports like hockey and football understand the value of the Team. Not only do the players on a football team need the other players to block, pass, and catch, they need each other for other reasons: support, community, camaraderie. The players they play with become their friends because they have something in common, something they share. in many cases, the parents and officials become friends because THEY have something in common, too. It is the shared experience that creates community, and what is life without friends?
Unfortunately, tennis does not share this same spirit of community because every player is an opponent. Yes, players often train together at the same facility, but when they travel to a tournament, partners become opponents. And that kind of consistent opposition can strain a friendship ultimately leading to tennis players having very few friends. Most people can be friends with people that are kind to them, but on the field of competition the other person’s objective is to see you lose. How long can a relationship last when the only thing you have in common is a desire to see the other person fail? And in many cases, this feeling of isolation is too much for players, to where they decide not to play anymore.
There is a solution. There is an answer to the demise of our sport. There is a way to keep players playing and we see it in High Schools, Colleges, and (believe it or not) in every tennis club across the country; and it’s called the ‘Tennis Team’. The Team is a container that is big enough to hold every player who wants to play. The Team is great for new players because they are not required to carry the team. The team is good for more experienced players because they now have an audience that appreciates their talents. The Team fills in the gaps of the human experience that individual sports leave behind. And if tennis were a team sport at the Professional level it would bring greater notoriety to a sport that could desperately use the attention. That is what we are here to do: make a big deal out of an otherwise ignored sport. Stay tuned for more.