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Men’s tennis has long rally ahead of it

WashPost: Sport loaded with talent, but exposing it among public, media is problem
Andy Roddick raises his arms after his 7-5, 6-3 victory over James Blake in the Legg Mason Classic final on Sunday.Lawrence Jackson / AP

Don't get me wrong, an Andy Roddick vs. James Blake final was perfect for the Legg Mason Tennis Classic. If a vote had been taken on the eve of the tournament, the mandate would have been for Roddick vs. Andre Agassi. But Blake turned out to be far more than a suitable stand-in with the absence of Agassi. The very sophisticated tennis public here is intimately familiar with Blake's attempts to overcome injury and illness to climb the long road back to elite status in his sport. And Roddick is not only the best America has to offer in men's tennis right now and a top-five player, but something of a crossover celebrity, a star who is fancied by starlets and is a nice young man to boot.

Also, the tennis was about what people hoped for. Blake played with the optimism and assertiveness of a man who can sense he is in position to get his career back on track, and Roddick played with the businesslike attitude of someone tuning up for something big, which would be the U.S. Open. Blake was the first player to break Roddick's serve all week. But Roddick stayed in a controlled mode and grabbed the critical points.

So, yes, William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center offered pretty much what fans were looking for yesterday, especially those enjoying the first all-American final here since 1990.

But this is where we come to the "however" part.

As understandably proud as folks were to see two Americans, friends no less, reach the final, it would seem we've got to get past our own xenophobia, particularly when it comes to men's tennis. What, the final would have been unappealing had Spaniard Rafael Nadal, Mr. Capri Pants, been opposite Roddick yesterday afternoon?

Every conversation about the drop in popularity of men's tennis over the years seems to center on what the American players are doing, or not doing.

For the record, Americans Roddick, Agassi and Robby Ginepri have won in successive weeks. But that's beside the larger point. For years, particularly during the tennis boom of the 1970s and '80s, foreign-born players weren't just accepted, they were treated as an indispensable part of the theater. Did it help interest here if Jimmy Connors or John McEnroe was involved? Yes, of course. But Americans looked forward to seeing Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas, Ivan Lendl and Ilie Nastase playing, even if it was against each other.

Davis Cup Captain Patrick McEnroe, as involved in media as he is in tennis at this point in his life, is uniquely qualified to speak to what in the world has happened. "It's the media's fault," he said. "It's our fault."

Yesterday, McEnroe was wearing his media hat and analyzing the action for ESPN2, which televised the final from 16th Street. Last week, while hosting the Jim Rome talk show all week, McEnroe thought he might slip in a little bit of tennis conversation. "But you know how this goes: 'Let's have more in a minute on T.O. [Terrell Owens].' I get it," McEnroe said. "I'm a sports fan. But let's not blame it on 'no personalities.' That's a false premise. Roger Federer is a personality by force of his talent. He has the most effortless magic I've ever seen.

"Lleyton Hewitt has a Jimmy Connors-like combativeness. He's married to an actress, hates the press, the whole thing. He's T.O. with an [Australian] accent. Marat Safin is a self-tortured genius. He's off the wall with tremendous physical talent. And Nadal — talk about personality and game. He's like the fighter who throws a hundred punches in a row."

McEnroe isn't the only one making this argument persuasively. Two weeks ago, when I was stupidly critical of men's tennis players' personalities and artistry, Roddick phoned me to say what McEnroe says.

"We don't know the international players like we used to, so we're critical of them and it's just not accurate," Roddick said. "Roger brings incredible artistry. I know. I was on the other side of it at Wimbledon [in the men's final]. But Roger is here, what, four or five times a year maybe, while Yao Ming is here six, seven months a year. No, Roger's not going to moon a cameraman just to get headlines or ratings. Roger is like Pete Sampras, just from another country."

The basketball analogy is interesting because after several false starts, American basketball fans have certainly embraced foreign-born players. Yao is the most obvious. Tony Parker (France) and Manu Ginobili (Argentina) have certainly had more success. So why don't we take to Federer and Hewitt the same way?

"Remember," McEnroe said, "Parker and Ginobili are still representing San Antonio. Pedro Martinez was representing Boston, so there's a different relationship. They play for the local team."

But most of all, the sports/entertainment landscape is crowded. Other sports have marketed themselves so much more effectively than tennis. The NFL, now with its own channel, is 365 days a year. "It's harder for [tennis] to find its niche," McEnroe said.

Tennis had its niche in America and gave it up. There's no problem with the popularity of tennis in Australia or Europe. There is a problem here. To that end, the USTA came up with this U.S. Open Series. It only involves the six weeks leading up to the U.S. Open, but it's a good start — except for the dopey "reality series" concept and these nicknames (Serena "The Diva" Williams, Andy "Rocket Man" Roddick, Lindsay "Top Gun" Davenport) that make Roddick roll his eyes and the rest of us want to throw up.

But one element is smart and long overdue (and I'm not talking about the blue court, which also is smart because it makes the matches easier to watch). The U.S. Open Series puts a tournament final on ESPN2 every Sunday at 3 p.m. This might not sound like programming genius, but it's a revelation to tennis. Perhaps the biggest problem for tennis is that you don't know when it's going to be played, don't know where to find it, and don't know who'll be there. NASCAR exploded when folks knew they could find it on Fox or NBC every single Sunday.

Now, NASCAR goes a step further and guarantees every driver will be in virtually every event. You still don't know who will open a tennis tournament. Agassi, at the last minute, canceled on the Legg Mason. There were six late withdrawals in Los Angeles. NASCAR never has to sell a ticket not knowing whether Dale Earnhardt Jr. will show up. So tennis has its challenges. But taking a page from the NFL and setting the programming should help immensely. Sports viewing is more habitual than ever.

"I think the big value," Roddick said, "is getting everything under one tent. Okay, these nicknames are a little stupid, though maybe they'll get people talking one way or the other. But there has to be some consistency, and once you have that, people here can get to know and more appreciate some of the non-American players. But I think you'd have to agree you saw some artistry today, right?"