By Tyler Valzania
Unlike most people, I come from a family with a strong tennis background. Tennis isn’t the easiest sport to get into. However, my grandmother worked at a tennis club during my father and his brother’s childhoods, as well as the better part of mine. My uncle ended up playing in college and even my retired grandfather still plays every weekend. Needless to say my family is highly invested in this sport, I’m talking weekly lessons and tournaments from around ages five to fourteen. After playing for most of my tween-age years I, like many young tennis players, grew bored of the game and pursued a high school career of only team sports. However, my interest in the professional sport of tennis didn’t perish along with my participation, I still watch the occasional match (highlights). I even play once in a while and remember how enjoyable the game is when you get into it. It’s fast paced, it’s intense, and it’s easy to learn. The more I think about it the more I wonder why Tennis is not the most popular individual youth sport in the country?
The most popular individual sports in the USA are motorsports, wrestling, and golf, with tennis coming in behind the likes of running and skateboarding (StatisticBrain.com). Skateboarding? Really? Tennis is incredibly unpopular despite its long celebrated history and Olympic status. Of course it did originate in England and is not a sport started in North America like the most major sports in the country. Also there has not been a serious contender from the U.S. since Andre Agassi, which makes it difficult to keep American’s paying attention to the sport. Did I mention that tennis is incredibly painful to watch? Matches last hours and really only two things can happen on each and every point. A player can hit the ball out of bounds, or a player can hit the ball into the net . . . and that’s how every point ends (for hours). As fun as the game is to play, the sparse TV time and the attention deficit disorder it induces forces its popularity into the gutter. Also let me say that the lack of a good, even marginally decent tennis based underdog sports movie is a completely unacceptable. Every other sport has a movie, even bowling has both The Big Lebowski and King Pin! If I was the ATP I would fund this movie myself, anything to make my sport more popular. They could hire me to direct, it would be called The Last Deuce and it would be a masterpiece.
Every major sport has their characters, the players with larger than life personalities that capture the concentration of casual fans. The bad asses that don’t quite play by the rules of the mainstream. These players bring new evolutions and innovations to the game while demonstrating their individuality. Baseball has the likes of Dustin Pedroia, an undersized player who is an MVP caliber talent with a mouth that has sparked multiple Internet viral videos such as “laser show”. Football and basketball both have many guys with big personalities that play the game in a unique way. A great polarizing player can even revolutionize individual sports, I mean Tiger Woods was somehow able to make us all care about golf! Michael Phelps made us care about swimming! Usain Bolt made us care about the 100-meter dash! Would any of us have watched these events if not for these athletes? The answer is outside the intense fan absolutely not.
For a while, tennis had a player like this and his name was John McEnroe.
Today Johnny Mac is the butt of jokes and makes guest appearances mocking his former image; forcing people forget that he was one of the best tennis players of all time. He won seven solo Grand Slams in his career, three at Wimbledon and four at the US open, as well as nine doubles Grand Slam titles. He also holds the record for the best single season record in modern tennis history with a mark of 82 wins and only three losses. John McEnroe’s legacy however, will forever be tainted by his famous tantrums and screaming sessions with line judges.
Tennis is a high society sport, there’s no denying that. Tennis lessons are far too expensive and only people with a certain economic status can afford them. Sure there are free courts in every public park, but in order to become good enough to even play in high school, proper lessons from a pro are required. Because of this financial requirement, basically the entire handful of men’s professional tennis players we can name are different versions of the exact same guy. They are all stiff well-spoken white guys who all have the same arsenal of fist pumps and knee drops reserved for big points. They are also all European, very different from athletes we’re used to in the states. For some reason, American fans just can’t identify with European athletes, which is why sports like tennis and soccer don’t do as well over here. We find them strange and different, even though our athletes do things as extreme as rape and murder (the word “allegedly” gets thrown around a lot here in the states). To put it simply if an American was to drop down and tear his shirt off in celebration we would call that heroic and passionate, but if a guy with a name like Novak Djokavic does it, we find it scary and weird.
“Yeah that’s not a normal reaction to winning, a little too eastern European-y for my taste.” Said my roommate Donny when I showed him that video. That’s just the stereotype of that area of the world. It doesn’t matter if Djokovic is actually one of the better personalities in tennis, known to be the “class clown” per se and do great impressions of other pros on the tour. If a player is to become the next John McEnroe type-polarizing player he needs a few certain qualities. I believe in this day and age the player must either be African American, or a low socio-economic type guy, he also needs to be one of the top players in the game.
Arthur Ashe came to early and James Blake never was quite good enough to be this player, to capture the world and break into a mostly white mans game. Just look what Venus and Serena Williams did to the women’s game, they came in, dominated the competition and made us watch a sport that people might only tune into if one of the women happened to be extraordinarily attractive. A high ranked black player would shift a lot of focus back onto tennis, just as Tiger Woods did to golf when he busted onto the scene. I would almost like to see what would happen if an African American college Basketball or baseball player who wasn’t quite good enough to make the bigs decided to take up tennis late in life, take lessons, and see if his natural born athletic gifts could translate into skill. Imagine if a guy like Kevin Martin (Middle tear shooting guard on the OKC Thunder) picked up tennis, his huge wingspan and long strides from his six foot seven inch frame would be able to cover the court like no other player. If a guy like that were able to master the finesse of tennis he would be incredibly dominant and completely take over the sport
As far as the other scenario, I’ve thought about this particular player quite a bit. First of all when I say I think a low socio-economic status player would be good for the sport I’m saying a Rocky, a Rudy, a Happy Gilmore must bust out onto the scene. A guy who came from nothing and grew up hitting old tennis balls with a dumpy wooden racket he dug out of the trash. This self-taught superstar would be rough around the edges and definitely have no problem having “words” with line judges in proper Johnny Mac fashion. He will wear cowboy hats and cut off muscle shirts to all his matches, being fined over and over for dress code violations. However crass his persona may seem, when it comes to the game of tennis he’s the “tits” (As he would put it). The perfect fusion of Rodger Federer and Kenny Powers, lets call him Billy Bluegrass (He would also star in The Last Deuce the tennis movie), will be the savior of tennis. My favorite part of this Billy Bluegrass situation actually playing out would be the metaphorical representation of America that he would bring to the game. Most of the major tennis tournaments are played in Europe or other parts of the world where tennis is more popular. Therefore Billy Bluegrass would be the complete embodiment of everything that other countries think America is, a rude obnoxious jerk that never butts out! Everyone in tennis and everything that tennis stands for would hate this person, but the fans would absolutely love him because were American and we like to make fools of ourselves in other countries for some reason (see Jersey Shore season three). Ultimately Billy Bluegrass would save tennis from falling completely off the American table and into the forgotten abyss.
If you happen to be a promising young tennis player, I believe that you will live forever in infamy and your legend will be told for generations if you decide to transform yourself into Bobby Bluegrass. At least be the next McEnroe, a bad ass that doesn’t care who he pisses off and travels off the beaten path of the mainstream tennis player. In the end all fans are looking for is variation and storylines, so if someone was to embody Billy Bluegrass they would a) instantly become the most popular player in tennis, b) become a legend who changed the game, and c) (if you needed more convincing) get to hang out with all those hot tennis women!
Stats courtesy of ATPWorldTour.com and StatisticBrain.com
Photo by Afflictor.com