As a rabid tennis enthusiast, it literally crushes my spirit when I turn on the Tennis Channel and see so many empty seats. During the early stages of the Delray Beach ATP event, it appeared there were only hundreds of fans lining the stadium instead of thousands filling the stands. And, the tournament has outstanding promoters; the Baron family of south Florida has extensive tennis backgrounds and knows how to market the product. Okay, how do we attract fans during the first rounds of an event?
Who is to blame? Don Petrine (former Columbia University standout and one of the top tennis coaches in south Florida for the past 35 plus years) offered his observation: “Tennis is now run by bureaucrats not entrepreneurs.”
Case in point: Petrine family friend Butch Buchholz (former junior and adult star) founded the Lipton International Players Championships in 1985 (now known as the Miami Masters) and is now one of the leading events on both the men’s and women’s tours. I vividly remember when Mr. Buchholz was starting this venture; he wanted this new tournament to be considered one of the 5 best events (Australian, French, Wimbledon, US and then the Lipton’s) on the World tennis scene. Even though he resided in a trailer during his first years and did not have a stadium, he believed in his dream and quickly turned this tournament into one of the most prestigious and well-run events in the world and built one of the best stadiums on the tour. In 1999, Mr. Buchholz sold the tournament to IMG.
Similar to the Miami Masters, former tennis stars Charlie Pasarell and Raymond Moore were the original founders of the Indian Wells event (BNP Parabis) and like the incredible Key Biscayne venue, this tournament continues to grow in stature. In 2009, tennis enthusiast and Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison purchased the event and has been one of the most generous tennis owners. He has spent millions improving the site which is now considered one of the best venues on the World Tour. Mr. Ellison is a true tennis lover and each year takes lessons from top stars like Rafa Nadal and others.
Side note: Back in the mid 1960’s, I was a ball boy for both Moore and Pasarell at the United States Clay Court Championships in Milwaukee. And, because my dad was the Player Personnel Director, I played doubles with Ray Moore at a private court in Fox Point and he then gave me a pair of his shoes and a host of outstanding doubles tennis tips. Cool memories.
And let’s not forget the influence of legend Jack Kramer on the tennis stage. Former Grand Slam Champion Kramer was an instrumental tournament director (Pacific Southwest Open in Los Angeles) who had a profound impact on the game.
Tennis was bound to grow with visionaries like Kramer, Buchholz, Moore, Pasarell and others who have incorporated so many innovative ideas which have been well received by the players and the fans.
And, at the club level, it is essential for tennis committees to give the pro the authority to pursue his vision of programming and not be bogged down with being politically correct.
However, today’s game is now run by the ‘blue blazers’ or bureaucrats and in most cases is heavily run by various committees who continually have a revolving door of power. In other words, the USTA is run like most country clubs; every year or two, a new President is installed and several new committee members added. And without a doubt, since each new President has his or her ownvision; changes are inevitable.
Craig Tiley, current Tournament Director of the Australian Open and former NCAA Champion tennis coach for the University of Illinois and once vice chairman of the USTA’s High Performance committee) offers this nugget:
“One thing we’ve done in Australia is abolish all the committees. In the USTA, everyone has to have a voice and there’s such an incredible amount of committees, and reporting to committees, you get inhibited by having to constantly justify what you’re doing or report on what you’re doing. I think it would be much more appropriate to have action the whole time on what you’re doing. That wasn’t the reason I came to Australia, but it’s a significant opportunity that Australia has in comparison to the USTA. Nothing has changed at the USTA, with committees still having a major influence on any policy change advocated by the chairman/president.”
The key reason committees can be so lethal is that too many people have selfish agendas. At the club level, it could be something as innocuous as adding Tuesday night organized tennis. But at a higher-level like the USTA, the President can affect major change and it could be detrimental to the health of the game. For example, the new USTA President may have a close relationship with a former player and may put this person in charge of the Davis Cup team or the Player Development Director.
Additionally, committees might mandate changes with adult, junior and collegiate tennis and these moves might be too controversial. The chief concern is that the movers and shakers in the sport of tennis may lack the vision to drive the sport into the future.
Now, close to home on Marco Island (FL) years ago, the Marriott had approximately 15 well-groomed clay courts and the Head Pro ran a vigorous tournament schedule attracting tennis players from all over the country. Owned and operated by a leading insurance company, they eliminated 13 courts so they could build a larger Spa and Fitness Center and the tennis program almost disappeared.
There are numerous examples of courts disappearing throughout the country (Miami included according to Don Petrine) and it has had a profound effect on the state of the game. According to Mr. Petrine, top-flight juniors in south Florida often have to scramble to find courts for after-school training.
Presently, the game of tennis has so many hurdles to leap over and it might be insurmountable:
- No American male is ranked in the top 10 on the ATP Tour and has not won a Grand Slam title since 2002. (Andy Roddick won the US Open)
- Title 9 has been instrumental for women but has eliminated too many men’s collegiate Division 1 teams.
- College Tennis is constantly changing its format and these changes may not be in the best interests of the game.
- Foreign athletes dominate collegiate tennis scholarships at the Division 1 level, thus eliminating hundreds of American juniors.
- Other nations have caught up, and the USA is no longer dominating the sport as it did in the days of BJ King, Evert, Connors, McEnroe, Sampras, Courier, Chang and Roddick.
- American kids have too many options and too many are not focusing on tennis.
Stay tuned for my next article as I address the above concerns. See you next time. If you have any ideas or solutions, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Since 2000, Doug Browne was the Collier County Pro of the Year three times, and has been a USPTA pro in the area for 28 years. Doug was also honored in the International Hall of Fame (Newport, Rhode Island) as Tennis Director during the 2010 summer season. Doug has been writing about tennis for the last 19 years.