Hardly anyone for tennis, these days

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Everybody has their own personal relationship with tennis, but for a surprising number of people the story goes something like this: until the 1970s they had dismissed it as a rich man’s sport. Then a tennis court was built in their neighbourhood and they bought a wooden racket, joined a club, and fell for the game.

But at some point in the 1990s, these people bunged their rackets into the back of the cupboard. They found other hobbies, chiefly golf. Over this fortnight they will still check the Wimbledon scores before zapping to their favourite sports, but they no longer love or hate any players. This is the story of how tennis has gone from elite sport to mass sport to fading sport.

What fuelled tennis in the 1970s was rising affluence. “There was an increase in the numbers of people who came to belong to the social class – with respect to educational achievement, income and professional status – from which tennis players had always been recruited,” explained the Dutch Mulier Instituut in its recent report on sports participation in the European Union.

At the same time, top-level tennis was becoming entrancing. It had always been an amateur game, regulated by posh old people in blazers who made players wear white and behave like Victorians. When the sport went professional in 1968, unleashing a new breed of players out to make money, the situation was almost designed to create rebels. The new stars duly clashed with the blazers. The male players lowered their shorts, swore at umpires, or – with a wink at rock stars – smashed rackets. The two best women, Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, turned out to be lesbians. These new stars were mostly rich, good-looking and often had lives outside tennis: Arthur Ashe, for instance, was a civil rights hero. Fans loved it.

The commoners storming their local tennis clubs took their lead from the pros, often refusing to wear white and keep the noise down. It was thought then that as the west got richer, ever more people would take up tennis.

In fact, the opposite happened. By becoming a mass sport, tennis lost its snob appeal. The Mulier Instituut says many established tennis players migrated to golf, seeking “the atmosphere, relationships and social interactions . . . that were more fitting in terms of status value. In the Netherlands, for instance, 47 per cent of golf club members were previously members of tennis clubs.”

The other problem was that professional tennis changed again in the late 1980s. From 1985, professional umpires began replacing the retired colonels and bank managers who had previously officiated at tournaments. Players were now allowed to wear weird clothes, except at Wimbledon, but were punished for misbehaviour. It became almost impossible to be a rebel.

The new players were a different lot, anyway. The tennis career had been redefined: it now began at about age two, under the tutelage of a father-coach, passed through an adolescence spent in a sort of tennis labour camp, then peaked for a few weeks about age 21, before tailing off into injuries and then retirement in the late 20s with a ruined body. The new model player was probably better at tennis than his predecessors, but was less inspiring to fans. In fact, the hero of this year’s Wimbledon is John McEnroe, now a BBC commentator.

People still follow the Grand Slams: the Australian Open men’s final in January was the most watched television programme in Australia this century. Beyond the Slams, however, Australians, Americans and Europeans are ditching tennis. In France, for instance, the sport is now less popular than rambling or figure skating.
Tennis shrinks exponentially, because when your friends stop playing you lose your opponents.

The trend is almost universal across the west (though Luxembourg remains booming tennis territory). In other words, the decline is not just because a particular country no longer produces great players. “Tennis has had quite a blow over the last few years. You see it in our sales,” says Hans Faber, senior manager in corporate communications at Nike Europe.

In the US, only 1 per cent of respondents in a Harris poll last September named men’s tennis as their favourite professional sport, down from 5 per cent in 1985. Another poll showed the proportion of Americans who play tennis shrinking from 17 per cent in 1987 to 11 per cent in 1997. In addition, American tennis has tumbled down the class ladder. A survey by the National Sporting Goods Association last year revealed that it is Americans earning less than $15,000 a year who now give the highest priority to tennis purchases. These people are more likely to buy tennis rackets than any other sporting item except a “rod-reel combo”. The wealthiest Americans prefer golf clubs.

If tennis has a future, it may be in Asia. “It’s as if there were a new Europe or North America opening up,” marvels Mark Miles, chief executive of the Association of Tennis Professionals. In China, in particular, there are suddenly millions of people rich enough to play. Tennis is replacing bowling as the sport of Shanghai’s fashionable youth. We got an early glimpse of the future one boiling afternoon at the French Open last month, when a squat Chinese named Peng Shuai very nearly defeated the world’s number one Lindsay Davenport before Davenport figured out that Peng’s weakness was not her backhand but her forehand.

The Asian boom extends beyond China: the middle classes of Thailand and even Vietnam are also buying rackets. Let’s just hope they don’t bung them in the cupboard when the local plebs discover the game too.

simonkuper@ftnetwork.com

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