Play is already well underway in Stuttgart and Barcelona, but here's a little reader reading for your downtime. If you have a question or comment for this column, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ve seen that golf is trying out a bigger hole size to make the game easier. I didn’t realize that the sport is losing so many players. It sounds like tennis. What do you think of making these sports easier for kids? Is there anything tennis can do about this?—Sandra
The photo in the New York Times last week of Sergio Garcia putting into a pizza-sized hole was an eye-catcher. I knew that golf’s popularity had peaked, but like you, I had no idea the situation was so desperate. According to the Times, the sport in the U.S has lost five of its 30 million players in recent years, and can expect to lose another five million soon.
As the paper reports, “People have really spurned the game, saying it takes too long to play, is too difficult to learn, and has too many tiresome rules.”
To which tennis players say: "Welcome to our world, what took you so long?" Tennis, as we know, has had its own long-term drop-off in participation in the U.S., though that has stabilized at the adult level recently—some of golf’s loss has been tennis’ gain. But as with golf, the trouble has been getting young people to stick with it. That led to the USTA’s controversial decision four years ago to mandate smaller courts and foam balls to make the game more appealing for kids ages 10 and under.
The experiment has its vicious detractors, and some kids really don’t need to ease into tennis. But judging by what I’ve seen at clubs and heard from pros in the New York area, I’d say the 10-and-under rules have been worth trying—it's the quality of the teaching after that which will determine whether young players reach their potential or not. At the elite level, with the aging of the pro game, there’s a little less pressure these days for top juniors to reach their developmental peak right away. Besides, anything that Fox’s Sean Hannity is violently against, I’m probably going to support. (For more on this subject, see this interesting piece from a league tennis player and NPR reporter.)
But games like tennis and golf can only get so easy. Widening the hole in golf doesn’t make hitting off the tee, or out of the rough, or out of a sand trap, or anywhere on the course any easier. It also doesn’t save much time or make your clubs any less expensive. As for young tennis players, they’re going to have to graduate to the big court, and the bouncy balls, soon enough. In both cases, the sport is the sport, and both require time and patience. I’ve always thought tennis and golf should be proud of being difficult to master; they really are skills you never forget, and that you can use for the rest of your life. A lot of the adults who have returned to tennis are realizing that now.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to inspire many kids to look up from their smartphones these days. (Did I really just use “kids” and “these days” in the same sentence?) Whenever I hear about a sport dumbing itself down to attract more people, I think of the mercifully forgotten “Tennis Sucks” campaign that Nike briefly tried to build around Andre Agassi in the 1990s. The phrase, which was printed on shirts and hats, was supposed to make that era's cynical followers of Kurt Cobain realize tennis was actually cool. Somehow, it didn’t work. When young people gravitate toward new, faster-paced, less labor-intensive 21st-century activities—whether that's video games or skateboarding or social media or something else—there's only so much a 19th-century sport like tennis or golf can do to bring them back.
It’s interesting that the person from the tennis world that the PGA has brought on as a consultant is Arlen Kantarian. As a former director of the U.S. Open, his job had nothing to do with increasing participation. But he was very successful at increasing the tournament’s, and the USTA’s, revenues.
I’m really fed up with tennis commentating these days. Everyone I ever talk to agrees that they should talk less, but no network ever gets the message. Can you write something about this?—Coco Belle
I also agree, and I’ve said it many times—the less chatter the better. That was once the British way; in the 70s and 80s, the BBC’s Dan Maskell would rouse himself to speak a couple of times a set, but he had a knack for doing it when it mattered. This, of course, has never been the American way. Bud Collins is a (deservedly) revered figure now, but back in the day he drove a lot of fans I knew bonkers with his nickname-slinging, “eyeball to eyeball” commentary style. And announcers have only grown more loquacious since. In a way, this is related to the “dumbing down” of the game discussed above. Television producers, not content to present a sport and let it speak for itself, want more action, more noise, more talk to go with it.
One problem for tennis fans is that, watching day after day and month after month, we can start to predict what every commentator, even those we may like, is going to say at any point in a match—by now, I've started to mutter "defense to offense" in my sleep. That's another reason to wish for less talk. In general, the Masters Series TV guys, who are British and South African, measure their words pretty well (though Jason Goodall has been known to run on). The commentator I’ve liked the most this spring has been the ATP’s Nick Lester. In the Maskell tradition, he doesn’t try to analyze every shot and tactical turn that goes on during a point—a former player, Lester probably realizes that sometimes a miss is just a miss and there’s no explanation needed for it. Instead, he hangs back a little and gives us the big picture. We can fill in the rest, right?
Speaking of tennis commentary, and about how less is more, what about trying one broadcaster in a booth? This week I’ve been watching my baseball team, the Phillies, play the Dodgers in L.A. The games have featured baseball’s longest-serving and most famous commentator, Vin Scully. Since the 1950s, when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn, Scully has done his broadcasting alone. It can seem a little weird at first—I doubt any man in history has spent so much time talking to himself as Vin Scully. But he says he does it because he thinks it’s better and clearer for the viewers to have someone speak directly to us, rather than forcing us to listen to a conversation between two people. When you think of it that way, he has a point. Tennis fans might agree.