New glory days for tennis?

The sport has endured a long slump in the US. But rising stars and, now, a summer TV 'season' may help it win back audiences.

Beyond the interminable rain delays, if you turned on your television set over the past two weeks, there was almost no way of avoiding tennis. But now Wimbledon is over, and already some tennis commentators are declaring, "Tennis is dead."

Well, maybe not.

Both the men's and women's finals may have put some bounce back into tennis, and tennis officials have a few tricks up their sleeves yet to try to regain for their sport the popularity it enjoyed back in its Billie Jean-Chrissy-Martina heyday.

"There is no question that tennis is at a crossroads in the US," says Phil de Picciotto of Octagon, one of the world's top sports marketing and management firms, based in McLean, Va. "My feeling is that the glory days for tennis will return, but it will take some time."

True, tennis will have to shake itself out of a long slump. Even recreational tennis has faded: The number of Americans who play has dropped 42 percent since 1992 - from 17.3 million to 10 million, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. It's been back on its heels as a spectator sport, too. Rodeo, soccer, and even greyhound racing rated higher than tennis did on an average year-long ratings measure, a 2002 survey in the Sports Business Journal showed.

Theories abound as to why tennis is in trouble in the biggest consumer market in the world: a lack of personalities, new racquet technology that makes it mostly a power game, or perhaps greater competition from sports such as golf, which, in Tiger Woods, has the biggest marketing superstar that game has ever known.

But the governing bodies of professional tennis see another big reason, and they are now poised to try to correct it: lack of television exposure. To that end, the USTA has created the US Open Series, which draws all of the North American tournaments together under one broadcast and sponsorship umbrella between now and the US Open at summer's end. The series will be on ESPN, CBS, NBC, and Fox Sports Net.

"This creates a clear and concise summer season for tennis," says Arlen Kantarian, the chief executive for professional tennis for the US Tennis Association. "It will radically change the way tennis is presented in America."

Those who monitor the business side of tennis have long pointed out that, because each tourney controls its own broadcast rights, the sport has not had the consistent visibility that comes with a major US TV broadcast deal.

The 10 tournaments in the US Open Series - which kicks off July 12 with the top men playing in the Mercedes-Benz Cup in Los Angeles and the top women at the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, Calif. - will not change. The intent is to unify them under one logo, with national marketing, cooperation by the players' tours, and cross-promotion by the four networks. The series is set up to show men's and women's finals back to back, every Sunday.

"This means a dramatic improvement in the way the public follows the sport," says Larry Scott, CEO of the Women's Tennis Association. "Our biggest challenge has always been keeping eyeballs on TV. This will definitely elevate tennis's profile."

Tennis certainly dazzled last weekend at Wimbledon, when teenager Maria Sharapova, a tall Russian with a modeling contract, stunned the tennis world, defeating defending champion Serena Williams. In doing so, tennis, it appears, has a new star, joining Jennifer Capriati and Serena and Venus Williams among the sport's alluring, athletic, and bankable players.

Tennis is, in the end, about personalities and rivalries. The men's game has lacked a true rivalry for several years - in part because of the waning influence of Andre Agassi and the retirement of Pete Sampras. That's why the men's final at Wimbledon this year gives tennis fans at least two reasons for hope: easygoing Roger Federer - who draws comparisons to Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, and Rod Laver - and Andy Roddick, a US Open Champion who exemplifies power tennis. Although Federer stopped Roddick in four sets, tennis may have gotten a glimpse of a rivalry that could unfold for years.

"I hope so," Roddick said, "but I'm going to have to start winning some of them to call it a rivalry."

As far as personalities, tennis has clearly become an international sport. Ten Russian women are among the top 50, and European-based players make up eight of the top 10 men players.

"Interest in tennis in Europe is phenomenally high," says Octagon's Mr. de Picciotto, who represents Anna Kournikova. "It will come back to America. But because of the globalization of the sport, the odds of an American getting to the top have decreased."

Increased competition, though, may not be a bad thing for tennis's popularity.

"We look through one lens here in America," said Andre Agassi after a match in Indian Wells, Calif., earlier this year. "But this is an international sport. So I think it's easy to say, 'Well, who's the next American player?' But there are players who are bringing millions of new fans to the sport."

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