Grass roots courting brings America back to tennis

May 12, 2009 01:27 PM

USTA/NJTL Tennis Leadership Camp Photo Gallery

DENVER (AP)—The magazine cover and accompanying story sit on Kurt Kamperman’s desk—a reminder of where his sport has been and where it cannot go again.

“Is Tennis Dying?” the Sports Illustrated cover asks. Inside is a 5,000-word discourse about the slow, sad dismantling of the Great American Tennis Boom, which blossomed in the days of McEnroe, Connors and Evert back in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Since the dark days of that May 1994 magazine cover, leaders in tennis have recalibrated their formula and repackaged their product.

Helped by the new strategies and the fact that it doesn’t take hundreds of dollars to drum up a game—a good sell in a rough economy—the sport has enjoyed 43 percent growth since 2000, to 18.6 million players, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

Another survey released by the U.S. Tennis Association shows even stronger numbers, saying almost 27 million Americans played tennis in 2008—the largest number in 15 years—and 6 million tried it for the first time.

“Everyone has tennis shoes,” says Kamperman, the USTA’s CEO of community tennis. “It helps that there are low-cost, no-cost public courts in almost every city, and you don’t need a lot of equipment to get started.”

It also doesn’t eat up an entire afternoon.

“In this economy, to spend 4-5 hours playing a round of golf, it’s a challenge,” Kamperman says, “where in 90 minutes, you can get to the courts, get a good workout in and you’re back home.”

Indeed, numbers for golf have been flattening over the past few years (down 1.4 million players since 2005, to 28.6 million) while tennis is regaining popularity—the fifth-fastest-growing sporting activity this decade behind pilates, the elliptical machine, lacrosse and, yes, stretching.

While booking a court normally isn’t as costly as making a tee time, tennis is not free: A decent racket can cost $100 or more, but that’s still less than a new set of irons or a new driver, and industry leaders are conscious about keeping the price of a can of balls at less than $3.

Kamperman says plenty of baby boomers who helped create the tennis craze are sending their kids off to school and now have time to rediscover what they love about the sport. The Tennis Industry Association reports a 30 percent increase in adult racket shipments since 2003.

That number balloons to 88 percent for junior rackets. After struggling with the formula for decades, the USTA may have finally come up with a workable plan to get more kids interested in a game that has been notoriously difficult to learn, especially compared to soccer, swimming and basketball.

“They’re out there playing the same game, with the same size court and the same rules as Venus and Serena Williams at Wimbledon,” Kamperman says. “It’s not realistic.”

A new game, called QuickStart Tennis, puts kids on a shrunken version of a court with smaller rackets, low-compression tennis balls and a lower net. The object is to make it easier to hold the attention of 8- to 12-year-olds when so many of their friends are rushing off to less challenging team sports.

“They’re on the right track, knowing that they’re looking at that 8, 9, 10-year-old, where the emphasis before had been on finding that talented 16-year-old and trying to make a quick fix and turn him into a star,” says Dan Gonzales, son of the late tennis great Pancho Gonzales. “What’s difficult for Americans to understand is that there are some things that need a process. Tennis demands it. It’s one of the most difficult games out there to play.”

Gonzales was teaching at a leadership camp sponsored by the National Junior Tennis League. Forty kids from middle- and lower-class neighborhoods who won trips to Denver based on good grades and well-written essays got to play a week’s worth of tennis, do some volunteer work and meet some famous people, like former Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith.

The goal at the camp wasn’t so much to find the next Serena Williams, as to help a few dozen kids better appreciate the game and the sense of community it can evoke. There was also a subtle message at work, seen in the demographics of the kids chosen for this camp: A love of tennis doesn’t have to bloom out of an expensive country club.

Fourteen-year-old Toni McDonald learned the game by hitting a ball against a wall in Richmond, Va.

“My dad gave me a racket and a ball,” she says. “I’d be hitting on the wall and if it went over the fence, I’d go chase it and come back. I only had one ball. From there, I just fell in love with tennis.”

McDonald says her favorite player is Venus Williams “because no matter who she plays, she always plays hard.” But she says it was her dad’s love of the game that drew her in more than any desire to be like Venus someday.

How much credit the biggest stars should receive for the overall health of their sports is debatable, especially among those in tennis.

Much the way Arnold Palmer brought golf to the masses and Tiger Woods expanded it, a lot of the credit for the ’70s tennis boom went to eminently watchable players such as Evert, McEnroe and Connors, whose steel Wilson T2000 racket was among the hottest sellers.

So, not surprisingly, tennis’ backslide in America was widely blamed on the dearth of compelling stars in the 1990s. Pete Sampras was great but dull, Jim Courier came off as unapproachable, Jennifer Capriati was a train wreck and Lindsay Davenport, who seemed to do everything right, didn’t capture imaginations.

Not much has changed, though. Outside of the Williams sisters, America hasn’t produced a mass-market tennis star in more than a decade. That was Andre Agassi, who claimed, “Image is Everything”—a slogan critics said defined the me-first attitude of the ’90s tennis star.

Industry leaders believe their improving numbers despite today’s dearth of top American pros punctures the myth that tennis has to have a big-selling TV personality to lead a comeback at the grass roots level.

“It’s a testament to the TIA’s efforts and the USTA understanding we can grow this sport without needing our version of Tiger Woods,” says Tennis Industry Association president John Muir, who is also the general manager of Wilson Racquet Sports.

With help of the new kids’ programs, the ubiquitous USTA leagues and increasing numbers of public courts that make tennis available and affordable for adults, players are being reminded of the benefits of a sport that withered in the 1990s because of neglect, underfunded facilities and a piecemeal approach to youth development.

“I think a lot of people are getting bored with the, ‘I’m going to ride the recumbent bike while I read a magazine, or do the elliptical while I watch TV,” Kamperman said. “I think people are rediscovering that tennis is one of those few sports where you can get a good workout and you don’t have to be bored. It works your mind and your body, and that’s a good thing.”



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