Feinstein: Tennis "A Dead Sport" In U.S.

John Feinstein examines why tennis has dipped in popularity over the years, at least in the United States

John Feinstein
June 27, 2018 - 10:34 am

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Wimbledon begins Monday. It will be on ESPN just about all day, every day and if you happen to miss something, Tennis Channel will be there as backup.
Of course there’s a very good chance you don’t have Tennis Channel. There’s a reason for that: most people don’t care enough about tennis to spend very much time watching it. Perhaps during the major championships, but that’s about it.
On the other hand, almost everyone has Golf Channel and people with even a passing interest in golf watch it on at least a semi-regular basis. There’s a reason for that too: a lot more people follow golf in this country than tennis.
The question is why?
It’s NOT because tennis isn’t a great sport. It certainly isn’t because the game lacks stars. On the men’s side, the case can be made that the three greatest players of all time have been playing for the last dozen years: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who, in spite of having to face one another regularly, have combined to win 49 major titles.
The only two players who even belong in the same sentence with those three are Pete Sampras, who won 14 majors, and Rod Laver, who won 11, even though he lost five years of his Grand Slam career because of tennis’s archaic rules in the 1960s.
The women aren’t in that sort of golden age, but Serena Williams is a must-watch whenever she shows up on a tennis court and Maria Sharapova is still around along with a handful of very good young Americans who have been inspired by the Williams sisters—Serena and older sister Venus. The two of them have combined to win 30 major singles titles—23 belonging to Serena.
So why then is tennis basically a dead sport in the United States? Why has the Davis Cup, which was once a bigger deal than the Ryder Cup, become something that slips by unnoticed by all except the true tennis geeks?
Peter Bodo, who worked for Tennis Magazine for years and now writes for ESPN.com, and I were good friends during the years I covered the sport on a regular basis. A few years ago, when I made my annual visit to the U.S. Open, Peter and I sat down for, presumably, a catch-up cup of coffee. As long as we don’t talk politics, I’ve always found Peter great fun to be around; he’s bright, funny and probably knows tennis and the people in the sport as well as anyone in journalism this side of Mary Carillo.
I’m not sure what tripped things up, but at some point, Peter began yelling at me that he was tired of me beating up on tennis in print and on radio.
“You have no appreciation for how good these guys are,” he said. “You never give them any credit. The level of play right now is amazing. All you do is whine about lack of access. You don’t even cover the sport anymore. What do you care?”
I realized that most of what Peter was saying was true. There was no doubting the level of play. And I had written often about tennis’s drop in popularity. That, he couldn’t argue with. Many tournaments that had been U.S.-based for years had moved overseas because of lack of interest. TV ratings had dropped and most Americans didn’t even know Tennis Channel existed.
The last two things Bodo had brought up were connected. I don’t cover the sport anymore and I have complained for years about the tennis’s lack of access for members of the media.
I covered tennis on a regular basis for The Washington Post and then for The National Sports Daily from 1984 to 1992. In 1990, I spent a year travelling the world to write a book called, “Hard Courts,” about life on the two tennis tours. The success of “Hard Courts" led me to write “A Good Walk Spoiled,” the approach to each being similar: write about stars, non-stars and the way the sports are run for good and for bad.
What I found in writing the tennis book was that tennis had absolutely no real leadership and agents had been allowed to run amok and run the sport. There were rules preventing appearance fees that were universally ignored. Players regularly tanked matches—often after receiving a huge appearance fee—because they already had made far more money for the week than first prize would pay.
I was able to get access to players only because I travelled constantly. I got myself into player hotels—no easy feat—so I could meet with them there and not deal with all the rules that prevented media from getting near players at tournaments—ALL tournaments, not just the majors.
Tennis was still full of glamour back then: John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Ivan Lendl were stars on the men’s side: Chris Evert had just retired but Jennifer Capriati was, “the future of tennis.” (that’s how she was introduced at the Italian Open). Martina Navratilova won her last Wimbledon that year and Steffi Graf and Gabriela Sabatini were young stars.
The book did very well—getting as high as No. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list—and got great reviews except for some starry-eyed tennis fan who reviewed the book in Time Magazine and was outraged that I pointed out the corruption and incompetence in the game.
In an ironic twist, the reviewer—I can’t remember his name now—recommended that people read Bud Collins’ book, "My Life with the Pros,” because it captured the beauty of the sport. I laughed out loud reading that line because my mentor and guide as a tennis writer had been Bud.
In fact, a Nightline producer, after reading the review, thought a segment on tennis with Bud and I would be good TV—he who sees beauty vs. he who sees corruption.
The guy did a pre-interview with me and then did one with Bud. Every time he brought up something I’d said about the sport’s issues, Bud said, “I couldn’t agree more.”
Exasperated, the guy decided not to do the segment. When he told me the reason—that Bud and I seemed to agree on everything—I said, “Did you check the book’s dedication?”
The other irony is when I proposed what became, “A Good Walk Spoiled,” to my then-editor Peter Gethers, he was skeptical. Golf, he said, didn’t have the glamour that tennis did. This was pre-Tiger Woods when golf was in what some referred to as its, “faceless clones,” stage.
Peter gave in, finally, because I convinced him the inside stories about life on the golf tour would be just as fascinating as on the tennis tour. The book surpassed “A Season on the Brink,” as the all-time best-selling sports book and blew "Hard Courts" away.
It was also a pleasure to write because almost every player I encountered willingly gave me time and truth—which is all a reporter can ask for.
My first long interview for the book was with Davis Love III. About two hours in I said, “Davis, how are you set on time?”
Love shrugged. “You said you were writing a book, so I just blocked off the whole afternoon.”
After spending a year with tennis players who blanched at the thought of 30 minutes, I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven.
After I finished writing “A Good Walk Spoiled,” I went to what was then The Lipton Tennis Championships in Miami. I flew in from the ACC Tournament, the intent being to find Pete Sampras for a column for Tennis Magazine—I was still writing some tennis back then.
I had never been to the new stadium on Key Biscayne and, after Sampras won his opening round match, I headed to the interview room to see if I could grab a minute with Pete and set up a time to talk. He and I had become friends during my research of “Hard Courts”—I was lucky to get him to agree to be part of the book just before he become a star.
When I got downstairs, I asked an usher to point me to the interview room. He turned and pointed at a door perhaps 50 feet away.
“Thanks,” I said, starting in that direction.
“Hang on,” he said. “You have to go that way—pointing in the opposite direction.
He shrugged apologetically. “Locker room is right there,” he said. “Media can’t walk past it. You have to circle the stadium.”
He was serious. I didn’t argue. No point. He was just doing what he was told. I circled the stadium, talked to Sampras, wrote the column and RAN back to golf.
I’ll watch Wimbledon the next two weeks. I’ll enjoy the tennis and all the traditions and picture in my mind what it was like when I walked those grounds all those years ago.
But I won’t miss covering it. Bodo’s right—the level of play is remarkable. But I’m much too old to fight the battles for access I fought years ago. Sadly, my colleagues who now cover the sport have given up the fight. I can understand why. If you can’t walk PAST a locker room much less go in it to talk to players, what chance do you have? Answer: none.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The First Major—the Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,”—spent five months on the New York Times bestseller list. His latest Young Adult novel—“Backfield Boys—A Mystery in Black and White,” was selected as one of the best books of 2017 by the Junior Literary Guild. His new YA novel, “The Prodigy,”—set at the Masters will publish in late August.