Monday, July 13, 2009

Tennis in Dire Straights, and It’s Not the Messengers Fault; Davis Cup Needs Makeover

When I picked up The Washington Post this morning I noticed there was what’s called a key—that’s a few words telling the reader where to find a story inside the section—on the fact that the U.S. had been eliminated from The Davis Cup by Croatia.

Looking at the bottom of the sports section front I saw a story about Navy’s offense being used as part of a new video game.

This is what it’s come to for tennis: One week after one of the most remarkable Wimbledon finals in history, the Davis Cup gets knocked off the sports front by a story about a video game.

Here’s a note to all my tennis friends who keep insisting all is well with tennis: A VIDEO game?

Once upon a time The Davis Cup was as big a story in sports as The Ryder Cup is these days. Now, more often than not, it’s little more than, well, a key on the front page leading to a four paragraph story somewhere inside. Maybe if the U.S. wins the Davis Cup and does so in the U.S. there will be some coverage.

Quick, tell me who televised this weekend’s Davis Cup match? (Hint, it probably wasn’t even on our cable provider). The answer is The Tennis Channel. As I said to my friend Mary Carillo on Friday when she was filling me in on James Blake losing yet ANOTHER crucial five set match (he loses five setters the way The Washington General used to lose to the Globetrotters), “there are about five dozen people watching this and you are two dozen of them.”

All of this is sad. Tennis at its best—as we just saw last Sunday—can still provide great theater and great drama. There is often great drama in Davis Cup but except in places like Croatia and Spain (the 2008 champion, bet you didn’t know that) and perhaps Australia, no one really cares anymore.

That’s because the players don’t really care that much. Half the time the star players don’t show up to play for one reason or another. Patrick McEnroe has actually done a great job as U.S. captain getting the top American players to show up to play—Andy Roddick’s withdrawal with a hip problem last week notwithstanding—but it’s worth remembering he hasn’t been dealing with superstars the last few years. Since the retirements of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, Roddick’s 2003 U.S. Open title is the only major won by an American man.

This is how bad it has gotten for tennis and Davis Cup: while the U.S. was losing in Croatia, Bud Collins was calling the finals in Newport. There is no bigger advocate or lover of Davis Cup than Bud and he was in Newport—which, if you think about it, isn’t a bad place to be in July.

For years now I’ve told people at The International Tennis Federation they need to revamp The Davis Cup. Award it every two years—like The Ryder Cup. Play two matched one year, two matches the next year. Winning will mean more because you’ll have to wait longer to get another shot if you lose. Players will be more willing to play because they’ll be asked to give up a maximum of two weeks each calendar year—and that much only if their country makes the final.

My friend Bill Babcock, who is an ITF big-wig, laughs at me when I bring this up and cites TV ratings in the Czech Republic. Which may help explain why tennis is in such desperate straits in general. Tennis people live in their own glass-enclosed world thinking that everything’s just fine because they SAY everything’s just fine.

A few years ago on the first day of the U.S. Open I wrote an op-ed piece in USA Today talking about the decline and fall of tennis and mentioned that a big part of the problem was that tennis people, rather than looking at spiraling TV ratings and attendance figures and tournaments moving out of the U.S. (remember when there was a real live indoor circuit here every winter?) and The Davis Cup being ignored, tend to look at people like me and say, ‘this is your fault because you’re pointing it out.’

I wasn’t inside the National Tennis Center for five minutes that morning when Pam Shriver, one of the brighter people in tennis, stormed up to me and said, “You know, it’s negative people like you who are the biggest problem we have!”

She stalked down the hall. I took about five steps and encountered John McEnroe, one of the few people in tennis who may be smarter than Shriver. “Oh there he is,” McEnroe said, “the guy who is trying to kill tennis.”

Yeah, this must be all my fault. No doubt, if I’d kept my big mouth shut, the U.S.-Croatia Davis Cup match this morning would have knocked Sonia Sotomayer’s hearings right off Page 1.


Anonymous said...

John, great piece, and you are right to call things you like you see them, although it seems like there should be a bit more attention on the tennis business establishment (sponsors, promoters, etc) for their role in keeping tennis in the state it is in. Unfortunately, commentators like McEnroe always talk about cultivating the next big star, because McEnroe believes he, Connors and Borg carried tennis on their backs in the 1970s and 80s. It is true that tennis, being an individual sport, probably will experience undulations based on the attention-grabbing power of its top players. But if we are talking about what policies the game of tennis should have in place regardless of talent available, tennis today is doing a poor job.

The most harmful thing is that every tournament organizer and its advertisers want to have the top players play in every tournament. This leaves little room for Davis Cup on a player’s schedule. Byproducts of this system are a ranking scheme that rewards appearances instead of Grand Slam wins (e.g. Safina versus Serena as the true #1) as well as player injuries that don't heal and keep the top players out of top form. It seems obvious that Davis Cup should be more similar to the Ryder Cup, and astonishing that it hasn't been changed, unless you take into account that venues and promoters could stand to lose. It seems obvious that that tennis season should be shortened, again, unless you take into account that venues and promoters stand to lose. The ATP/WTA/ITF or the players' association does not seem to be the force needed to keep the players' or the game's interests at the forefront. The local tennis franchises are holding the corporate headquarters hostage, and as a result the brand and the product are suffering.

qtlaw said...

Dead on. Tennis is down and there's no attempt to keep up with the new technology. The tennis establishment needs to do more to expand it, hype it, get it out. If you cannot stand the criticism, then you have lost already. Its not about the messenger its about the message, McEnroe and Shriver should be smart enough to understand that, if not, that's their ignorance showing through.