You’ve probably noticed by now that one of the undercurrents of this blog is my interest in sports outside the traditional Big Four.
Thus far, the journey has taken us through college football, college basketball, track and field and soccer. Sometimes what I write generates interest, and sometimes it generates tumbleweeds.
Today, I’m killing this blog’s audience once and for all.
I’m writing about tennis.
For all that I’ve ever said about the other sports I cover, believe me when I tell you that tennis is one of my very favorites.
So when I heard that Andre Agassi was coming to King of Prussia to play World Team Tennis for the Philadelphia Freedoms, I made sure my calendar was clear.
Even though he’s been retired for a few years now, Agassi remains a star. If I went out on the street and asked 10 random people to name one American tennis player, I bet a few would pick him, and not just because he's married to Steffi Graf.
The real reason why Agassi is still so well-known is his place as the last link in a decades-long chain of American dominance in the sport.
From the mid-1990's through their famous 2002 U.S. Open final, Agassi and Pete Sampras were at their best on tennis’ biggest stages. Sampras held the Grand Slam singles titles record for a time, winning the last of his 14 in the aforementioned duel at Flushing Meadows.
But Agassi countered Sampras' resumé with nine Slams of his own, inclduing the 1999 French Open. Not only did that title clinch the career Slam for Agassi, but it came on the famed terre battue that Sampras never solved.
In the early 90's, Jim Courier and Michael Chang also stood among the sport’s elite. Before that, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors seized the spotlight with big games and bigger tempers.
(I grant that I wasn’t alive for much of the McEnroe-Connors era, but I’ve been told that The Inquirer used to send staff writers to Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. I guess the company had money to spend once upon a time.)
These days, however, tennis registers only a blip on the American sports radar. Golf now has more of the “country club” audience, while baseball and (above all) the NFL are now year-round affairs.
But tennis has also been complicit in its own demise, at least in this country. Notwithstanding Andy Roddick’s epic loss to Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final last Sunday, Roddick’s 2003 U.S. Open title was the last men’s singles Slam won by an American.
(If only he’d hit that backhand volley in at the end of the second set...)
Americans want to see Americans win championships in international sports, plain and simple. If that doesn’t happen, they go elsewhere. It’s part of why soccer is where it is in this country, for example, and even if the U.S. wins a World Cup they’ll probably have to win more than one for the sport to really go mainstream nationwide.
(Note that I said nationwide, not locally in Philadelphia. As you’ve probably heard by now, that’s another story.)
Anyway, back to tennis. I played the sport fairly often (if not too well) growing up, and the four Grand Slams have been appointment television for me for many years. There were public hard courts near my parents' house, and I took lessons under a big inflatable bubble a few miles down the road.
I imagined Sampras leaping for overhead smashes at the net, and Agassi returning blistering serves with impeccable backhands (which he's still got, by the way).
I ended up with a forehand that could sustain a decent rally when playing with family and friends. Such is life.
Nowadays, kids in Switzerland watch Roger Federer hit groundstrokes that resemble impressionist paintings. In Spain, they marvel at Rafael Nadal’s ability to surf across red clay. Andy Murray has inspired Great Britain to believe that he might end a Wimbledon drought for the home nation that rivals anything William Penn or the Cubs could offer.
Here in America, we pay all that little notice. Most of the tennis fans I know are resigned to the sport’s rank on the totem pole, though Twitter and other social networking sites have made their sighs louder.
Agassi held a press conference before last night's match, and I asked him whether tennis can make a comeback in the United States. You'll see his answer in the video player below.
I also talked to Jan-Michael Gambill, an American who rose as high as No. 14 in the ATP rankings in 2001. Gambill was in town with the Boston Lobsters, who beat Agassi and the Freedoms.
Now I turn the question to you. Can tennis in America return to prominence? Or is it gone for good?