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!
“Ohio State is going to dominate the 2016 NFL draft. “
“His team could have as many as five players taken in the first round next year, with underclassmen such as Joey Bosa and Ezekiel Elliott leading the way.”
“Here’s an early look at the NFL talent who will be lighting it up for Ohio State this fall.”
These are lines from an article posted on the Bleacher Report website from May 5, 2015. The article goes on to give a breakdown of each player and his contribution to the Buckeyes for the coming season. Every day journalists across the country reach out to their numerous sources to gather information for reporting on their chosen team and its players. Television, websites, newspapers, even smartphone apps are flooded with valuable information concerning the players from your favorite team/sport.
But not tennis. Why?
College tennis rosters are full of players that any coach would give their non-dominant arm to work with. Players that have spent most of their lives training, traveling, and testing themselves against the best competition in their given region, both here and around the world. These are players that, if we were to play them ourselves, would make any one of us look like a clumsy, 5-year-old, uncoordinated, special needs child. And they all come together, at the same time, to go to college. So what happens to them after what many believe were ‘the best years of their life’?
When a top college prospect in football or basketball decides to go pro and declares for the draft, it sets a number of things in motion: agents, Pro Day, the Draft, visitations, contract negotiations, etc. Much of it taken care of by the player’s handlers so the player can focus on playing. In tennis, the player must be the CEO, CFO, HR, travel agent, administrative assistant, chief, cook, and bottle washer all at the same time. Once they leave college they are essentially on their own to navigate the treacherous waters of professional tournament tennis. And for what? A couple hundred dollars at the end of the week? It doesn’t seem worth it. In fact, a great many top college prospects burn out before ever realizing their dream of playing on the bigger stages. We can’t let this talent go to waste.
Tennis tournaments are a process of elimination designed to find out who’s #1. But how many #1’s can there be? You know the answer. But when the Denver Broncos, the Golden State Warriors, or the Kansas City Royals win a championship, how many #1’s are there? When the Vanderbilt women’s or the Virginia men’s tennis teams win the NCAA Championship all 11 players win the trophy. Unlike the Miami Open or US Open where only 1 player can take home the trophy, a greater number of people benefit from the success of the Team. And that number includes all of the fans, too.
A third of the top 25 college tennis rosters feature the names of players born outside the United States. And while some believe this to be problematic, the real story is the global nature of college tennis. When saddled with the responsibility of filling a roster of 10+ players, college coaches search far and wide for the best players available. Players who come up through the tournament ranks believing they might one day play professionally, are now filling college tennis rosters. In other sports they refer to college as a period of ‘maturity’. In tennis, college is the final destination. Washed up at 22?!? That is a very short-sighted view.
Follow me on this one: Imagine tennis as a Team Sport at the professional level, like it is in college.
It changes the entire tennis conversation from “who will be the next #1” to “my team just signed a prospect out of the Ohio State University to a 3-year contract worth $1.2 million. He could be a starter right away. How do they fit into the system Coach Ken has in place? And can the veterans on the team bring along the rookies to put the team over the top?” I’ve just given you more content for TV and radio than most tennis tournaments (mind blown). Imagine the growth of the tennis industry when we have more than 2-3 people to talk about; the talk shows, segments on ESPN, news crews covering the High School State Championship. Things really begin to open up.
So the next time you’re looking for world-class tennis, skip the tournament (you’re not missing anything) and visit your local university. Players who understand the value of the team are definitely worth cheering for. GO TEAM!