SBJ/Sept. 1-7, 2014/Opinion

Growth of a game: How tennis has changed, where U.S. stands

AAs the 2014 U.S. Open enters its second week, I am frequently asked two questions about the current state of professional tennis:

What has changed in the pro sport since 1968, when the first U.S. Open was held at Forest Hills and when amateurs could compete with professionals for prize money?

Everything has changed since tennis went professional in 1968. 

From a technical perspective, tennis is a different sport now, transformed by power. Wood rackets have been replaced by highly developed composites of graphite and carbon fibers, making them lighter but just as strong. Players can generate more racket speed, turning tennis into a baseline power game instead of the finesse, serve-and-volley style of the past. 

Even the new strings, like the Babolat synthetic and the Luxilon power strings, are designed to be strung looser, with more ridges to generate more spin, allowing players to hit harder while making the ball dip into the court. Gone are the Eastern grip forehands and safe slice serves of the Open era. Today, 10-year-olds are taught open-stance forehands, exaggerated Western grips and arched-back kick serves. Tennis is more physical, being played higher and higher, with racket back-swings up around the ears and topspin shots bouncing at shoulder height. 

The surfaces are faster too, going from grass courts to hard courts, reinforcing the speed of play. The players’ diet, fitness regimes and cross training — many travel with a physical trainer and a nutritionist in addition to their coach — have contributed as well. Even the scoring has changed, with the introduction of the tie-breaker quickening a match’s pace. And players can now challenge close line calls everywhere, through the Hawk-Eye instant replay, encouraging them to take some chances and go for the lines. 

Players also travel in packs, with entourages of trainers, coaches, families and mental-toughness gurus, insulating them from the outside world and making traveling the tour more of a serious and isolated experience.

But the biggest change in pro tennis has been

Total purse of the 1968 U.S. Open, won on the men’s side by Arthur Ashe, was $100,000. When Rafael Nadal won last year, the purse topped $40 million.
Photos by: GETTY IMAGES (2)

the tremendous explosion of prize money and athlete endorsements over the past 40 years. In 1968, the first U.S. Open gave $100,000 in prize money for the whole tournament. By 2015, the prize money at the U.S. Open is expected to approach $50 million. Today, agencies can make whole businesses around advising brands how to spend their money in the sport. And this growth of endorsement capital and sponsorship money has brought an enormous change in the attitude of the players. Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic both earn well over $25 million a year in endorsement and sponsorship deals.

Today, players are far more professional in their approach to competing on a world tour. They are serious, dedicated, phenomenal physical fitness specimens, more muscular and fit than ever before. In the days of the 1950s and ’60s, when it rained, we played cards or went to the movies. Today when it rains, 90 percent of the pros are working out for several hours in the local gyms. Today’s players are willing to pay the price to be the very best that their talent will allow them to be. Their work ethic is outstanding. 

Ivan Lendl was one of the first players who brought fitness to the game. He had a relentless consistency that was based on his work in the gym. Other players soon followed. Federer set the tone and pace of the totally professional approach to winning major events, through his physical fitness and professional demeanor on the court. 

Djokovic loves to extol the virtues of going gluten free, and off the court he also uses a pressurized egg, called a CVAC pod, to improve his fitness. Federer, Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, who have dominated the four Grand Slam championships for the past six or seven years, all work with personal trainers, spending as much time training off the court as they do on.

The tremendous growth of prize money through sponsorship and television has driven the players, both men and women, to be more competitive than ever. Quite simply, there are many more financial rewards at stake today.

What is wrong with American tennis, and where are the future American stars?

It’s really quite simple. As prize money, sponsorship and television grew exponentially in the ’70s, young players began to learn the game from different countries all over the world. Gone were the days when America, Australia, England and Germany dominated the Davis Cup and Fed Cup in tennis, when motivations were tied to pride of country more than financial gain. This patriotic focus was replaced by the ATP and WTA computer rankings, which vary and change on a weekly basis. 

Today, there are 800 players in the ATP rankings from all over the world. In parts of Europe and Asia, professional tennis has become a ticket out of the player’s local environs, giving players much more financial incentive and hunger to work hard, travel, and win prize money to improve their lives and the lives of their families. 

As a child, Djokovic trained in his home of Belgrade, which was under siege during the Kosovan war. He’d play without nets, on broken concrete. Today, he’s the world’s top-ranked men’s singles player. On the other extreme, there are foreign governments that pay for the best and most athletic kids’ training, often starting at an earlier age than we do in America.

Today, the world of professional tennis is truly a global sport, with literally hundreds more good players striving to improve everywhere. In America, we must understand that the battleground is really for the competitive interests of 6- to 8-year-olds as they decide whether to focus on football, basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer or the individual sports of golf and tennis.

In order to raise kids’ interest in tennis, the U.S. Tennis Association has embarked on a program called Quickstart Tennis in which it is spending millions of dollars to attract the best young 6- to 8-year-old athletes to the game by using short courts, large foam yellow balls and smaller racquets — so that a 6-year-old will enjoy the sport more from the very first hit. It will take time, but we shall see the results of this program in the years ahead.

America needs a new young champion and star whom the kids will idolize — a Jimmy Connors, a Pete Sampras or an Andre Agassi. But the breadth of players competing from all nationalities will make it highly competitive and difficult to achieve. n

Donald Dell is group president at Lagardère Unlimited and vice chairman of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Dell also was a member of the SportsBusiness Journal/Daily class of 2013 of The Champions: Pioneers and Innovators in Sports Business.

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