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The Great Turnover In Tennis And The Evolution Of The Game

The future of American tennis as tennis goes global.

Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic of Serbia plays a return to Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina during their Men’s singles semifinal match at the All England Lawn Tennis Championships in Wimbledon, London, Friday, July 5, 2013. (Anja Niedringhaus/AP)

Joy in Britain yesterday, as Andy Murray ended a 77-year drought for British men’s tennis on the championship court at Wimbledon.

The week before, it was the early fall of global tennis greats Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal that made headlines.

For the United States it was a tough year. Doubles joy with the Bryan twins again, but no American making it into even Wimbledon’s third round for men’s singles for the first time in 101 years.

Every sport has its day.  America’s top young athletes are going to the NFL, the NBA.

This hour, On Point:  The evolution of a game.

– Tom Ashbrook


Chris Clarey, chief sports correspondent and regular columnist for The International Herald Tribune. He has been covering Wimbledon for the paper. (@christophclarey)

Pete Bodo, senior editor of Tennis Magazine and author of: “A Champion’s Mind: Lessons From A Life In Tennis, with Pete Sampras.” (@ptbodo)

Todd Martin, ranked No. 4 in the world, he retired from professional tennis in 1994. From August 2009 to April 2010 he coached Novak Djokovic. He now runs Todd Martin Tennis (@toddmartinTMT), a junior development tennis program in North Florida.

From Tom’s Reading List

CNN: U.S. Grand Slam Drought: Is The NFL Killing American Tennis? — “So what’s gone wrong? A nation that dominated tennis from the mid-1970s is struggling to repeat those past glories — and there is no quick solution in sight.”

Sports Illustrated: American Men Fail To Reach Wimbledon’s Third Round For First Time Since 1912 — “Wimbledon’s main draw featured 11 American men; four days later, none remain in the tournament. Novak Djokovic’s comfortable Centre Court win over 156th-ranked qualifier Bobby Reynolds on Thursday signaled a new era: For the first time since 1912, no American men have advanced to Wimbledon’s third round.”

The Wall Street Journal: One Kid’s Personal Tennis Academy — “‘It’s a Disneyland for tennis players,’ said Peter Carnello, a Swedish entertainment executive whose son, Lancelot, trains full-time at the Neff facility.”

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  • Yar

    While talking about athletes, talk about immigration.  Anybody can hit a tennis ball, just like anybody can pick a tomato, but to do it all day and without bruising them is the same as being able to serve and return a ball at the highest level of competition. One is called skilled if they can play a game, the other is called unskilled when they feed a nation.  I never have understood the economics of sports.  I expect it has a lot to do with not having to work in hard physical labor for your money. 

    • HonestDebate1

      I don’t think picking tomatoes is a spectator sport. 

      • Yar

        Are you sure?  Each tomato bought at the store is admired by the consumer.  They just don’t think about the person who picked it.  No TV coverage, no glamour. no health insurance, no living wage.  I don’t understand the economics of sports, but I suspect it is supported by the work of slave labor which makes our food and consumer goods so cheap.  

        • HonestDebate1

          Yea, I’m pretty sure. 

          The economics of sports is like the economics of the entertainment industry. In fact it is an entertainment industry. Picking tomatoes is just not that entertaining. However, if you have an idea and are willing to put your money at risk, sell the idea to sponsors, promote and market it then if it turns into a nationwide phenomenon, God bless you. You will deserve what you get. You can pay the pickers millions, they can pay huge taxes that didn’t exist before you and you could raise countless millions for charity like the NFL that also didn’t exist. It would mean work for vendors, ushers, agents, maintenance and countless other tentacles. All would pay taxes. More money, more money, more money. 

  • Shag_Wevera

    I hope this generation of tennis players has some better and more interesting personalities.

  • Markus6

    I’ve heard three arguments explaining why the US doesn’t do as well in tennis. First is that baseball, basketball and football generate more interest and get the better athletes. Second, that tennis is looked at as a way out of a bad situation, especially in eastern europe. Finally, I’ve heard that there is more government support for tennis in other countries. 

    But it doesn’t bother me that I don’t see US players in the top ten. Actually, when they do last into later rounds of a tournament, TV plays their matches and not others, where there may be better players. The Olympics drives me nuts this way, where coverage is great if the US is a contender, but we miss a lot of events where it’s not. 

    It’d be interesting if the panelists had some demographic data on who plays and watches tennis. My guess is a high percentage is from boomers who took to tennis in the McEnroe, Conners eras. 

    • Fred_in_Newton_MA

      Agree on your Olympic comment, where even whole sports get shortchanged.
      Last go-round, was able to watch BBC coverage-
      certainly some emphasis on British athletes, but overall very balanced.

  • patsybaudoin

    A plea before you go on air this morning: please don’t perpetuate the sloppy reporting that Murray is the first Brit to win Wimbledon in 77 years, since Fred Perry. Virginia Wade won the women’s Wimbledon title in 1977. Murray’s admittedly wonderful victory earns him the first men’s title since Perry. Reporters’ failure to fact-check, amid all of the excitement, renders their reporting sloppy, creates myth and meme, and, unfortunately, reveals the sexism that too often underlies reporting in sports. Thanks for keeping an eye on accuracy and fairness in reporting.

    • adks12020

      I take your point but everything that I’ve read has said “first men’s champion”. Throughout the match yesterday the commentators consistently emphasized “first men’s champion”.  

      It’s certainly possible that some people haven’t placed emphasis on that but I don’t see that as being sexist. I think many assume when speaking about a man in tennis the conversation would be comparing him to the British men’s record, not the record of both genders.

      Great match yesterday, btw.

  • Rick Evans

    “SI: American Men Fail To Reach Wimbledon’s Third Round …”

    Last time I checked Bob and Mike Bryan are men. Amazing how a ragazine that would have us think it covers sports dismisses the two guys who have done more for doubles in recent years than anyone in tennis.

  • Expanded_Consciousness

    “Every sport has its day.  America’s top young athletes are going to the NFL, the NBA.”

    This statement perpetuates a myth that athletic skill is a single skill that can be directed to any sport. It is not. Athletes are highly-skilled (through genetics and endless hours of practice) in specific skills that are useful and successful in a specific sport. They are not transferable skills. Jeremy Lin, for example, did not choose basketball, and forgo a baseball, or football, or tennis career. An athlete can only be a top-level performer in a particular, specific sport. Remember Michael Jordan?

    There is no basketball player in the NBA who could have been a top tennis player. There is no football player in the NFL who could be a top tennis player. Nor a top ballet dancer. Nor a top gymnast.

    • adks12020

      I think you’re off in your analysis. Kids are often innately athletic then they choose which skills to develop based on the sport. NBA, NFL, MLB are the main sports in the U.S. so kids and parents tend to lean towards those sports. In Europe, and most of the rest of the world, kids that show athletic talent generally lean towards soccer.

      Athletic talent is innate; ability and skill at a specific sport, at the professional level, is learned and taught even to the most naturally talented athletes.  Many pro athletes could’ve been great at other sports if they had chosen to play something else at an early age.

      • Expanded_Consciousness

        I don’t think so. The top-level athletes are the top 0.001%. They are the very few of all the thousands or millions who have tried to play the sport. Those who have the genetics in the eyes and the arms to hit a fastball with a bat are different than those who can use their feet and perform at an amazing level in soccer. 

        It is the same in academia. A top physicist would not have been a top author of fiction, a top philosopher, or a top economist if that student had just applied to different PhD programs. There are different types of intelligences and different types of athletic skills. Not a single intellectual or athletic skill that can just be applied anywhere.

  • TomK_in_Boston

    I enjoyed tennis in the serve-and-volley era, when players ran back and forth from the baseline to the net according to their strategy. I have no interest whatsoever in the current game with 2 guys standing behind the baseline and whacking the ball till someone misses.

    • adks12020

      I don’t disagree but you also have to keep in mind that serve and volley is a little more difficult when you’re rushing the net with a 100 mph return coming at you.  That said, a lot of the men still use some in their games.

      • TomK_in_Boston

        I agree. The reason serve and volley went out is that it’s a losing strategy with the passing shots these guys can hit. Nevertheless, it makes the game less interesting to me and I keep hoping for some new star who amazes the tennis world by making S&V work again.

  • Expanded_Consciousness

    Football players don’t physically look like tennis players. Give up this silly argument that possible tennis stars became football stars.

    • adks12020

      Tennis players don’t spend hours every day lifting weights and eating protein powder to bulk up. Look at pictures of the wide receivers and defensive backs in high school. They look at a lot more like a tennis player build then. Sure the linemen are a different thing but many of the players started around 5’10″-6’0″ and 160-170 lbs in high school. Then they got to college level weight lifting and added 30-40 lbs of muscle.

      • Expanded_Consciousness

        This is a version of the nature versus nurture argument. We like to think we can do anything. We like to think we can raise a baby to become anything. We sometimes under-appreciate the nature/genetic side of things. Michael Jordan had the genetics useful for basketball, not for baseball, football, or tennis. Mother nature selects the very few, elite, top-level players in each sport. It is a small club.

        • Markus6

          Given his size, mobility, coordination, competitiveness and all the rest, I think MJ had many if not most of the pieces to be a great tennis player. However, one’s a team sport and the other individual, don’t know if, psychologically, there’s a fit. Boxing might be closer in this way. In any event, my guess is MJ didn’t have tennis nearby like Agassiz, Martin or the others. 

          I have known a few really good basketball players (a few college players and one pro named McAdoo) who took up tennis. Their athletic gifts seemed to translate nicely. But this is only a few people.

          I’m also guessing that athletes who can track a fast moving object in one sport, could do the same in tennis. I’ve seen former hockey players do amazing things with shots hit at them in tennis. 

          • Expanded_Consciousness

            There is a different between being fit and at least being OK in any sport taken up, and being a professional, elite, top-level performer in a specific sport (a genetic freak for that particular sport). 

            The mythologizing comes in when someone is presented as “great” and as someone who could have been “great” no matter what they did. Makes for good copy, yet it discounts how skill-specific everything in life is.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jamie.nodell Jamie Nodell

    I played tennis in high school and taught it over the summer for many years. Regardless of the profession, it was so wonderful to see and hear Novak Djokavic’s gracious comments in defeat. Tennis teaches so many great life lessons and I hope it continues to flourish in America.

  • 2Gary2


  • manganbr

    Sorry, but I’m not buying that Pete Sampras’s gentlemanly demeanor, high gas prices, and the number of parent’s trying to cash in on their kid’s athletic dreams are even among the top fifty factors related to the decline of popularity for tennis. Why are we talking about these things? Any data to back up these anecdotes and hypotheses?

    • doitlive

      What exactly did that/they mean about Pete?…. sorry, I missed it

  • Jane Bond

    USTA is negligent in prompting the sport.

  • Jane Bond

    USTA is negligent in helping promote the sport.

  • Jane Bond

    My son was a top New England USTA player and I never received any help with court time expenses.

  • doitlive

    How much time, if any, did Pete spend at Bollitteri’s as USA Today article states?

    • doitlive

      And I missed it, podcast I guess

  • marjkramer

    Tom THIS IS ABOUT THE FORGIVENESS SHOW TOMORROW.I am much more interested in Eliot Spitzer’s knowledge of fraud by Wall Street and other financiers than in his private life. Looks to me like  Wall Street  attacked him because they were afraid of him and wanted him out of the way. Sex scandals seem to be the easiest way to do that. Would you consider getting Charles Ferguson who made “Inside Job” the 2010 documentary film that contained interviews with Eliot Spitzer, Hank Paulson, Larry Summers, Brookslie Born  and many more.    OR GET BROOKSLIE HERSELF,  SHE IS 72, STILL THERE. THANKS FOR THE GOOD SHOW. 

    • HonestDebate1

      Indeed, a man of his low morals should understand fraud.

  • erdevereux

    Tom – Glad you did an hour on tennis here on this side of the Pond – you chose your guests well. Ironically, at least in terms of media coverage, Murray’s win might have done as much for tennis here (and everywhere) as even an American man’s win. Bottom line, if tennis is in the national conversation – even for negative reasons – it helps the sport. 

    Yes, US men’s tennis hasn’t yet climbed back as many hoped it would. Will it? Inevitably, yes. WHY? Because these things run in cycles. It takes only 1 or 2 individuals to lead others toward the top of the game before  their long-time competitors follow – the ’5th Beatles’ like Todd Martin. Young American boys watching Rafa and Roger, and now Joker and Andy, have been dreaming of winning Wimbledon.

    Andy Murray’s triumph reminds us how a single motivated individual from a tennis background can change a barren tennis landscape (Scotland!). If any national player development program has been more criticized than our own, it has been the UK’s. Under pressure to form a champion, they’ve been completely dysfunctional and have had many fewer prospects than we have. It’s almost a certainty that if Andy had stayed within the UK player development system, he’d never have become the player or the winner he is. Instead, when he was an early teen, his mother (his teacher and a pro, and now a part of the national development program for girls) had the sense to send him to train in Spain for several years. As an adult, he had the luck and the sense to be able to employ perhaps the one man who could help him get over the hump at Wimbledon: Ivan Lendl. 
    Now that Andy’s achieved a dream, will other young Brits follow in his path? Don’t bet against it. Young Americans, too.

    Rick Devereux, Intennis.com (daily blogger on pro tennis)

  • Jasoturner

    Until you see pro tennis live, it’s very hard to appreciate how talented and athletic these guys are.  I went to a tournament with a star basketball player and he was utterly amazed at the level of play.  Before that, he never had given the sport a thought.

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