Is Tennis a Winner in US?

Despite some dire assessments, there are signs of an upswing

Anyone who thought tennis was in a nose dive might think again after visiting the United States Open championships.

The US Tennis Association has spent millions to enlarge and remodel a 21-acre complex into a spectacular 42-acre tournament site here in New York. Record numbers of spectators are attending, with weekend crowds of 22,500 slated to fill Arthur Ashe Stadium to capacity for Saturday's men's semifinals and Sunday's men's and women's finals.

Everywhere one turns there is at least the look of prosperity. Even before the tournament began, thousands of youngsters showed up for Arthur Ashe Kids' Day, where Venus Williams, who some think could inspire a generation of minority youngsters, put her talent on display.

So what of the critics who've chided tennis for losing the popularity built during the heady 1970s? And was Sports Illustrated wrong in 1994 when a cover story pointed to the "sorry state of tennis," citing gloomy TV ratings, soft equipment sales, bored fans, and greedy pro players?

Not entirely, say even those at the heart of the tennis world.

Former champion John McEnroe says golf seems to have "totally eclipsed tennis" in popularity, partly because he says "it doesn't feel like there's a lot of personality around." Translation: Tennis seems to lack the kind of charismatic athlete golf has found in Tiger Woods, or someone whose presence sparks the interest of casual fans.

Personalities tend to drive an individual sport like tennis, and they are best presented head-to-head, but the opportunities for the top players to meet is hurt by a profusion of tournaments and what one critic calls a free-for-all atmosphere on the pro circuit. The men's ATP Tour is working on restructuring itself, but a lot of in-fighting may occur before a new, improved model rolls out.

"These days, only the true fanatics pay attention to tennis in between the majors," writes Tennis magazine columnist John Feinstein. "That's due, in large part, to the way the tours are managed (or mismanaged) but it also is because there's no one who captures fans' imaginations every time they step onto the court."

In the US, two players who once held potential for doing so - Andre Agassi and Jennifer Capriati - have seen their games go south as their personal lives changed. As the sport desperately searches for its Tiger Woods (is it Martina Hingis?), eyes focus on the future talent pool.

McEnroe is concerned that American youngsters "are still picking up a football, a basketball, a baseball ... before they pick up a tennis racket."

Kurt Kamperman, president of the Tennis Industry Association, acknowledges, "We obviously have some challenges like every other sport. There are just so many more options today with what people do with their time."

Kamperman is upbeat, however, about growing signs of renewal and attributes much of the negative press to the media's tendency to "wrap together the pro game with the activity itself.

"In actuality," he states, "tennis is better positioned today than ever before in terms of long-term, steady growth. We have the entire industry working together."

Clear evidence of this occurred at the US Open, where the United States Tennis Association (USTA) announced a five-year, $31-million "Plan for Growth," hailed as the most ambitious initiative the sport has ever undertaken to promote and develop American tennis, from the grass roots up.

The goal, says USTA first vice-president Judy Levering, is to attract 800,000 new participants.

Rick Fermen, the association's executive director, talks of turning 20 target communities into "tennis towns" by expanding an existing program called Play Tennis America. It includes introductory lessons and enrollment in adult or junior team leagues.

This effort would appear to be the major push American tennis has needed since the bloom went off the rose.

In 1974, the year after the Battle of the Sexes match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, 34 million Americans were playing tennis, a figure that had dropped to 17.8 million in 1995 but now is on the rise.

The upswing parallels an increase in pro tournament attendance, which has risen about 7.5 percent on the women's Corel WTA Tour this year and about 3 percent on the men's ATP circuit. The crowds at the Grand Slam tournaments are growing as well, and only sagging TV ratings have yet to turn the corner, but they are also off for other sports.

Maybe the best sign from an industry standpoint, Kamperman says, is the 8 to 10 percent gain in the US sale of prestrung rackets, the kind sold at Wal-Marts and K-Marts. "That's very encouraging," he says, "because those aren't being sold to existing players who are trading up, but to new players buying their first rackets."

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