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Tennis seeking to overcome several faults

WP: Sport suffering from low TV ratings, disinterested players
Williams displays her collection
Serena Williams spends more time modeling than playing tennis, Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins says.Jeff Gross / Getty Images file

I'm trying to think of anything more culturally irrelevant than tennis. New Age music festivals? Sport fishing and rare book auctions also come to mind. Here's how irrelevant the sport has become: Eleven days ago a U.S. Davis Cup team led by Andy Roddick beat Sweden in the quarterfinals on American soil, and it only merited a brief mention on the nightly sportscasts. You probably missed it, because Tiger Woods's slump seemed so much more important at the time. So did Sean Penn's political views, and Pete Rose's future, and Lesley Stahl's hair style.

Tennis is dead. It has been dead before, but at the moment it's dead without precedent. Combine aloof players with basic business errors, and what you have is a sport with no heartbeat. In an effort to resuscitate it, a hapless alphabet soup of governing bodies this week joined with ESPN in trumping up something called the "U.S. Open Series," a six-week summer season of big-bonus televised tournaments. The idea is to get tennis on TV more regularly, provide audiences with a better sense of continuity and familiarity with players, and thereby bring back the game. We'll see.

The question is whether the public wants more of something that they're already not watching.

Here are just a few of the spectator sports with better attendance figures than tennis, according to a 2002 survey in the Sports Business Journal: rodeo, soccer and greyhound racing.

The reason for this new big deal "series" – which by the way is only the most recent gimmicky "series" in tennis – is that the USTA, along with the ATP men's tour and the Women's Tennis Association, badly needed some kind of lightning rod because TV ratings have been so perilously weak lately. ESPN's numbers for its men's tennis events are off 33 percent from two years ago; only 249,000 households tuned in per telecast in 2003, and while women's tennis is slightly better, it's still flat, off by 5 percent, with 365,000 households tuning in per show.

Even the four Grand Slam events, which historically have always managed to consistently interest audiences, have seen precipitous ratings drops. Unless Andre Agassi or Venus and Serena Williams are in the final, people just don't seem to care like they used to. Last year's U.S. Open final between Roddick and top-ranked Juan Carlos Ferrero produced a 3.5 rating, a 44 percent fall from the previous year. Justine Henin-Hardenne's victory over No. 1 Kim Clijsters got a 2.5, down a precipitous 52 percent. And at Wimbledon, Roger Federer's victory over Mark Philippoussis drew the lowest overnight U.S. television rating on record for a men's final at the All England Club.

What happened? Why is tennis, which ruled the airwaves and enjoyed packed arenas in the 1970s and '80s, and even three years ago still had some buzz, suddenly falling so flat with the public in the millennium? The answer comes in the form of another question: Why should we watch a sport that even the players seem disinterested in? Especially when we can log on to the Internet and shop on eBay, or check our Blackberries, or click on a DVD?

You can put all the tennis on television that you want, but it won't alter the fact that the sport is driven by its stars and personalities, and at the moment there is a problematic cast at the top of both the men and women's games. Venus and Serena Williams don't even play their own sport; all they do is withdraw from tournaments with injuries and have dalliances with other professions, from fashion designing to acting, and turn up for an isolated trophy here or there. The men aren't much better. Six top players withdrew from the Monte Carlo Open this week, including top-ranked Federer, Agassi, Roddick, James Blake and Mardy Fish.

There is one thing no network or governing body or tricked-up schedule can do, and that's make the players play.

Golf, once a narrow and boring rich white man's game, has become the far more populist and connective sport – and one annually rated by sponsors as giving the most satisfaction to its financial backers, too. While tennis has done a swan dive over the last year, consider the LPGA. Attendance for the 33-event tour rose 9 percent last season, and 12 percent in 2002. Its network viewership was up 4 percent last year and a whopping 21 percent in 2002.

Tennis is a complicated failure. No one party or factor can be solely blamed. The problem is not fragmented internationalism, or a lack of stars. Federer is a pleasure to watch, an interesting and amiable man who is possessed of some of the most gorgeous strokes ever. It's not his fault, or that of Kim Clijsters, that the sport is in what might be called a star-transition and we simply don't know them as well yet as we know, say, Agassi or Monica Seles.

But it is the fault of the governing bodies that technology is ruining the quality of the game, and fields have become cluttered, with too many tournaments and too many indistinguishable players. Six male finalists turned up in Grand Slam finals in 2003, guys who shot up from the bottom 100s, guys like David Nalbandian, Guillermo Coria and Thomas Johansson. This is not to say they are unworthy or uninteresting. But at a certain point it's difficult to keep track of Jiri Novak, Sjeng Schalken and Paradorn Srichaphan plus a half dozen Argentines and another six or seven Spaniards who float in and out of the top 20 and various finals. As many as thirty players are liable to win ATP events in a season.

Equipment has something to do with it. Both John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova have each remarked that racket technology makes the game "too easy" with the result that too many players play exactly alike. Matches are generic, strokes homogenized, with fewer interesting contrasts in styles, or changeups.

This makes it hard for the public to connect with much of anyone. Contrast that with the game we watched in the 1970s and '80s, when there were more clear-cut rivals: Ivan Lendl showed up in 19 Grand Slam finals, and John McEnroe in 10, and we knew they didn't like each other. No wonder we tuned in.

It's taken a collective effort of lousy marketing, bad business practices, and apathetic players over a period of many years, but the end result is clear: Tennis has slowly but surely dislocated its audience, both physically and emotionally. It has squandered its star power, its history and its tradition. So can the new Open series and ESPN save tennis? Only if it manages to personalize the game again. Only if it manages to make the Federers and Clijsters come alive in our imaginations as the next great creative geniuses, the natural and personable successors in a traditional yet vivid and lively sport, the one we always loved.

If it doesn't do that, then the game is gone for good.