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.
IS THIS EVER GOING TO END?!?
Have you ever to listened to someone tell a story that kept going and going and never came to a point? Have you ever sat down to watch a two hour movie that should have been over in 90 minutes? Why do some tennis tournaments play additional games to determine a winner rather than could play a simple tiebreaker? The point is that, just like a story that goes on forever, many Americans feel tennis matches are just too long. Is this because matches really are too long, or because the product isn’t interesting enough to hold a viewer’s attention? We see this in other sports: when a basketball team leads by 26 points with 2 minutes remaining, timeouts make people mad. In fact, the NCAA recently adopted changes to their match format to produce what they believe to be a more television-friendly product (shorter matches). Today’s sports consumer has too many options available to waste time on a sport that takes too long to complete. Which means more is needed to make the game more exciting, rather than shorter.
This leads me to what I look for in a tennis player / team. I am a busy person. I don’t like wasting time. So I look for players who don’t waste time on the court, either. I look for players who play intelligently. I look for players that make the game more exciting, players that take chances, players that can bring more viewers to the television, and growing the game as a whole. These are the types of players I want to see.
I enjoy watching Aggressive Net Player, players who finish >50% of points inside the service line with either volleys or overheads, because baseline tennis is boring.
PLAYING THE NET IS A SKILL
Rather than jumping to conclusions and simply stating “I like net rushers,” allow me to explain. There is a certain skill to winning points at the net that many of today’s players either do not possess or refuse to use. That is why many players choose to play from behind the baseline leaving all sorts of opportunities on the table… and not a single footprint inside the service box. Their rallies last too long, making it too hard to explain on a broadcast, or to your players, and ultimately too hard to bring new players to the game. Most commentators aren’t able to get out more than a “Good Shot!” on most rallies leaving the viewer in the dark as to what just happened, unclear about how the game is played, and ultimately disinterested in the sport.
On the other hand, Net players play shorter points, they take chances, and win or lose THEY will determine the outcome of the match.
WAITING FOR THE BIG PLAY
I look for players who recognize an opportunity and seize it rather than simply waiting for their opponent to make a mistake. I look for players who know how to set up AND finish a point. Players who hit to the middle of the court or allow their opponent to change directions show a lack of understanding (and the killer instinct), that would make the game exciting for the spectator. For most of America this passiveness is boring. Like in the UFC, we want to see the finish. In baseball we look for the home run. In football we look for the big hit. In basketball we look for the slam dunk. In NASCAR we look for the crash. In soccer we look for the goal to be scored (which is why we don’t watch).
Look at it this way: in other sports they draw up plays. The team’s coach carries around a dry erase board, with a picture of the playing field on it, and he tells the players what to do in a given situation. Football does it, basketball does it, they all do it. In fact, I remember playing baseball and the coach explaining to us “it the ball is hit here, you throw it there.” There was a plan, there were x’s and o’s, we knew what to do.
Most tennis players do not.
HOW DID THEY DO THAT?
They can rally. They’re fast. They’re in great shape, but they’re too passive in their game planning. Just listen to their post match interviews and you’ll hear “I made my shots” or ”I wasn’t playing my best.” It almost sounds like they don’t know how they won or lost. They were told by their coach if they are able to perfect their technique, they’d win. Is that what baseball coaches do? Throw a better ball and you’ll win? Where’s the strategy in that?!?
I was watching an FSU match on ESPN3, recently, where Mark Bey was one of the broadcasters and there was a moment that really stuck out in my mind. One of the players throws in a drop shot and follows it in. Mark saw this and pointed it out to the audience. He said something along the lines of ‘I like how he started coming in after hitting the drop shot. That way he’s in a better position to win the point when the ball comes back.” It may not sound like much, but that kind of insight can help people understand what just happened. When I watch football on TV I see replays, close-ups, yellow lines on the screen, and all of it is narrated by the commentators. The commentators are teaching the viewer how the game is played by explaining what is happening on the field. They will even go so far as to predict or suggest what should happen next. Tennis commentators are unable to do that.
WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?!?
When I watch pro tennis I see players who don’t understand the basic geometry of a tennis court. It’s pretty simple when you consider we play on a big rectangle, with no one to defend us, and the biggest obstacle is a stationary net dividing the court in half. Exactly what is the objective of this game? Is it to get the ball by the other person? NO! It is to create a SITUATION to get the ball by the other person, or to make your opponent miss. So hitting a “better ball” is of little value. The real challenge is Manipulation.
A good tennis rally should last no longer than 10 shots. If you know what you’re doing you should be able to win/lose a point in under 10 shots because once you get to the net, you only have 2 shots left. The goal should be to create an opening for yourself, and finish your opponent. As another, high profile tennis coach would put it “control, hurt, and finish.”
THE RULES ARE VERY SIMPLE
From the baseline, the safe play is crosscourt; Change direction when you get a short ball, after you pushed your opponent off the court, or when you can hit it by them cleanly.
On the approach: The first question is when do you come in? And when you do come in, hit the approach down-the-line to make it easier for yourself on the next shot, the volley.
And of course, volleys always go to the open court. The only exception is when the open court is so obvious, your opponent sees it, too, and takes off running. In that case you hit it behind them. This is all basic stuff (or should be) but I believe the top players believe they can overpower their opponent rather than trying to outsmart them. I mean, a Swing Volley?!? What’s wrong with a firm flat volley to a part of the court as far away from your opponent as possible? Or maybe a drop shot? And if they return it, hit it to the other side! You’re welcome. That will be $80.
THE STRUGGLE IS REAL
Coaches and commentators spend much of their time talking about technique because it’s easier to recognize a technical mistake than a tactical one. We don’t draw up plays because the rallies are too long to diagram. So we wait until a player makes a mistake and talk about why they missed the shot, technically, rather than identifying the situation they were in and how they got there, an opening they missed, or how to get out of it.
But if more players were able to recognize an opportunity, and were not afraid to seize it, I believe the on-court action would be much more exciting and much more interesting to the spectator so there would be no need to shorten match… because they could do it themselves.