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June 30, 2008

US Tennis Fading: Fewer American Kids Willing To Give Up Social Life For The Sport

  It is arguably the bleakest moment in U.S. tennis history since the sport’s modern era began in the late 1960s.

As Wimbledon enters its second week, no men from the U.S. remain in the singles draw, and just three women — Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Bethanie Mattek — are left.

Heading into the tournament, just three American men and three women were among the top 40 in the respective rankings.

The outlook for U.S. tennis in the years ahead looks even bleaker because there is a dearth of young up-and-coming players. The youngest of the six top Americans, Andy Roddick, is 25, middle-aged in a tennis life. Another, Lindsay Davenport, is a 32-year-old who hasn’t won a major championship since 2000.    Venus and Serena Williams remain dominant, but they too are likely in the twilight of their careers and are often battling injury.

Tennis is now dominated by tireless European players, many of them born far from the genteel country clubs usually associated with the sport.

For the United States Tennis Association, the failure to develop young stars has become a crisis. The organization counts on American stars for television ratings in its marquee event, the U.S. Open, and the roughly $45 million a year in U.S. television-rights fees the ratings generate. That represents a quarter of the USTA’s annual budget. Lower ratings will inevitably lead to less money.

The dearth of talent exists even though tennis participation has risen more than 30% in the past seven years to nearly 17 million players, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association’s annual participation survey.

The U.S. needs to adopt the boot-camp approach followed by the new generation of European champions, tennis experts say. The Serbian triumvirate of Jelena Jankovic, Ana Ivanovic and Novak Djokovic all practiced tirelessly from an early age, then moved away from their parents to train among elite players at top academies.

“At the end of the day it’s all about who works harder and what is in the gut,” said Tracy Austin, a two-time U.S. Open champion. “So many of the parents in the European countries, they’ll send the kids away. It’s a hunger and work ethic that seems different there.”

U.S. tennis experts are embracing old-school tactics like those of Warren Fulgenzi, a 39-year-old tennis pro from Las Vegas, N.M., who asks his two oldest children for two hours of intense training each morning on his family’s two backyard courts.

“Sometimes they don’t give me the good workout, so we’re out there from 7 until 11 or 12,” said Mr. Fulgenzi, a runner-up in the 1990 U.S. Amateur Championship.

As Mr. Fulgenzi labors with his own children, the USTA is going old school, too, stealing a page from the European playbook, by spending several million dollars on its own school/tennis boot camp in Boca Raton, Fla. Patrick McEnroe, director of elite player development for the USTA, is overseeing the academy, which is only open to 24 players, all of whom must be from the U.S.

“This is not for every kid,” Mr. McEnroe said last week. “But you need young players to compete consistently with other excellent players in their age group.”

That the USTA would ever need someone like Mr. McEnroe to run a not-for-profit academy to create an American champion shows just how much the tennis world has changed in the three-plus decades since Mr. McEnroe and his brother, John, were rising junior players growing up in the Douglaston neighborhood of Queens, N.Y.

For decades, the U.S. and Australia dominated tennis. Now it is truly a world-wide sport, with champions emerging from countries where the game barely existed a generation ago.

In 1978, players from 33 countries played in the U.S. Open men’s and women’s singles tournaments. U.S. men accounted for 54 of the 128 players. Of the 96 women in the tournament, half were from the U.S., not including Martina Navratilova, who defected from the former Czechoslovakia. Last year, 45 countries were represented at the U.S. Open, and there were just 17 American men among the 128. Of the 128 women in the draw, just 15 were from the U.S.

In addition to competition, training has changed, too. A generation ago, the center of the tennis world was arguably the Port Washington Tennis Academy on Long Island. The McEnroe brothers, Vitas Gerulaitis, Peter Flemming and Mary Carillo grew up playing at the indoor-outdoor complex with 17 courts 20 miles east of Manhattan.

No one lived at Port Washington. It was one of hundreds of places in the U.S. where middle-class parents sent their kids for lessons after school and on weekends. It still is, but Richard Zausner, the club owner, said his program can no longer provide the right environment to produce a world champion. His kids love tennis, but they aren’t willing to give up their social lives for it.

Article by:  Matthew Futterman/Wall Street Journal/ U.S. Tennis Sees Star Power Waning

 Email: matthew.futterman@wsj.com

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