Final Words on the State of American Tennis
David Smith, TennisOne Senior Editor
Now that we have completed the U.S. Open, one could say that U.S. tennis was well-represented. With Roddick reaching the final against the impregnable Roger Federer, and other Americans—Blake, Agassi, Genepri and Fish reaching the second and third rounds—and Davenport getting to the semis on the ladies side, it's hard to say that our players weren’t competitive.
During the past three years, only Agassi and Roddick of the Americans have made a final, and Andre is now retired.
However, from a larger prospective, of the last 15 Grand Slam events, only Roddick and Agassi have won Majors for the U.S.; only 4 of the last 15 Slam runner ups were from the U.S. (and all four of these were Roddick and Agassi again!) So, out of 30 possible winners or runner ups over the past three years, only two U.S. players made up a total of 6 American appearances. This equates to twenty percent of Americans reaching a final. Looked at another way, the number is only six percent if you consider it was the same two players reaching those finals and now, one of them is retired!
Not a very positive note for a country that dominated tennis for decades!
As my first two articles alluded to (Part 1, Part 2), one indicator of this limited success is the failure of tennis in the U.S. to attract more athletic individuals early on. I mentioned that other sports—those perceived as ‘popular’— entice the preponderance of good athletes in the majority of schools across the country.
While I’m not promoting tennis as an ‘elite-only athlete’ sport, I am discussing the concept of why Americans are not competing in greater numbers at the professional level. Many TennisOne readers wrote in with excellent points addressing this concept and I acknowledge that there are a myriad of contributing factors. These reasons must be recognized and then extrapolated by those in the tennis industry to make lasting changes that can have a possible and significant impact on getting a larger market-share of athletes exploring tennis earlier in life.
On the women's side, Davenport was the only American to make it to the semis.
Ironically, in my experience within the tennis industry, we are getting large numbers of former football, basketball and baseball players who were outstanding athletes in their sport, looking at tennis later in life. And the majority of these players I meet mention an almost nostalgic remorse of not having played tennis as a youngster. Almost without exception, they not only regret not having played at a younger age, but many recognize they could have reached very high competitive levels—much higher—than they had in their chosen sport.
The problem is multifaceted. In a nutshell, here are some of the reasons that have been contributed: (Thanks to many of you who have shared!):
- Cost (playing, learning, and competing)
- Time to learn
- Potential to make money (compared to many team sports)
- Team versus Individual concept
- Television (Or the lack thereof!)
- Equipment needed
- Teaching philosophies
I have commented on each of these in my two previous newsletters.
There is, however, one additional concept that I wanted to discuss, one that has not been identified in most tennis circles. “Quitting when it gets too tough!”
Today, a large percentage of kids are being introduced to a wide variety of activities; from gymnastics to violin, from dance to Martial Arts, from piano to cheerleading, from Pop Warner football to Tee-Ball. Obviously, it is a helpful for kids to be exposed to a wide variety of sports, hobbies and activities. Each contributes to a child’s well-rounded sense of body movement, balance, and coordination, among other attributes.
However, there is sometimes a downside to this diversity when older children are involved. When any activity becomes more challenging, the tendency is to abandon it and try something else. This usually starts at a young age, disguised as developing diversity. Many children never learn to overcome the challenging aspects of activities and sports because they know they can go on to something else if the going gets tough in the program they are in.
Most kids enjoy the idea that they are
learning and playing a sport like the pros they see on television.
The question isn’t the value in multiple sports and activities; it is the concept of encouraging players to work through difficult aspects of anything. Too often, the emphasis in the tennis industry is to ‘learn tennis fast’ or ‘laugh and win’ or ‘hit and giggle’ - anything to create the perception of fun and easy learning. This is not only unrealistic, it is disruptive to the natural progression of learning in any activity that has a requirement of fine motor learning, hand-eye coordination, balance, movement, and a host of other demanding components that tennis involves. Ironically, sports like Karate, Golf, Dance and many other skilled activities, often promote their activities by marketing discipline and the very challenging aspects that are keys to success. You don’t see phrases like, “Learn Karate Fast- its Easy.” No. You hear things like, “Learn self-discipline;” “Challenge yourself;” and “Be Tough.”
In my experience, most kids enjoy the idea that they are learning and playing a sport like their ‘idols’—the pros they see on television. Real fun in tennis, or in any sport or activity, is in the execution and comprehension of doing something correctly on demand. Obviously, many aspects of the game can’t be taught to beginners exactly as a pro might execute a shot. However, one must recognize what techniques will allow for natural progression towards the goal of hitting a tennis ball like the pros. Today, we call it the ‘modern’ game. It is recognizing the current trends and patterns that create optimal results and stroking action. Most would-be tennis players welcome the challenge of such learning patterns, especially when they know that their effort will be rewarded by the achievement of their ‘true potential’ in the sport.
Nobody starts off saying, "Gosh I would love to play tennis but I really don’t want to be very good at it."
Ironically, when I see places that focus on a ‘hit and giggle’ philosophy, the fun in that first lesson is lost in subsequent lessons. That kind of ‘fun’ is short lived. It is imperative that every student understands the focus of any valid teaching program. Hit and giggle requires very little preconceived understanding. This is one reason so many pros teach using this philosophy. The only planning is to create a game-like setting that the kids can hit with little purpose other than to play a game. Most of the time, those activities contribute very little to the progressive elements necessary for player development. Pros in this setting don’t have a need to communicate purpose or goals or the anticipation of more difficult aspects that are inevitable in any difficult sport.
In programs that promote challenging, progressive improvement, such programs usually include some level of communication to the parent and a commitment from the student. While this system doesn’t satisfy every potential player’s intent, it does provide an honest look at the rigors of learning the game required to reach one’s potential.
Obviously, if the only goal of a parent or student is to experience hitting tennis balls with no desire to reach a player’s potential, then less challenging programs would be the focus. But, I don’t meet too many tennis players who say, “Gee, I would love to play tennis but I really don’t want to be very good at it.” Has anyone seen the kind of philosophy of ‘Learn Tennis Fast’ in any other sport? I haven’t. It strikes me as sort of ‘dumbing down’ of our sport so that we can attract players who don’t want to spend a lot of time being challenged.
Does this attract more players or less?
Does this attract better athletes?
Does this attract committed players?
In this light, I think we can see where some of our problems are rooted.
(Click link to purchase Dave Smith's Book Tennis Mastery, at tenniswarehouse.com.)
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