I have enjoyed professional tennis since the early 1980s. I begged my mom to let me skip church when the French Open or Wimbledon was on TV early on a Sunday morning. I remember finding some white tennis balls - white balls! Just like they use at Wimbledon! - at a sporting goods store and feeling so cool the next time I played tennis.
As fans we are in a golden era of tennis. We have been able to appreciate the sublime excellence of Roger Federer, then the gritty determination of Rafael Nadal, and finally a dominant stretch of tennis by Novak Djokovic. But I understand why tennis isn't more universally appreciated by sports fans in the U.S. Here are several reasons why tennis doesn't enjoy the same fan base as other sports.
Television and Media Coverage - Hardcore tennis fans have long made known their displeasure about poor TV coverage. The average sports fan in America wouldn't even be able to tune into some of the biggest tennis tournaments. I am not talking about the Grand Slams, which are televised well, now by ESPN. But the next most significant series, the ATP Masters 1000 events, are not on television at all, at least for those of us not interested in shelling out extra cash for the Tennis Channel. Even a fan looking to find news reports has to look hard to find it. A glance at the Yahoo! Sports front page shows links for the major sports, and UFC, and boxing (does that even still exist?) and finally something called Action Sports. There is no dedicated link to tennis. A fan would have to click the More tab to finally find tennis. It's a bit discouraging as a fan that my sport doesn't rate as highly as UFC or action sports (whatever they may be) but that's the way it is.
Residual Thoughts of Elitism - This is not really a fair charge. Tennis does not have to be an expensive sport, at least for recreational players. Many of us drive by tennis courts every day that see little use. Lots of courts, usually in parks or at high schools, are available for the public to use free of charge. But it is true that those who become elite players, be it at the high school, college, or professional level, have very likely had some private lessons or coaching. These things do not come cheaply. In the area I coach high school tennis, we have not had a conference or sectional champion who has not benefited from years of private coaching. I coach in Illinois, where the weather is a big factor for tennis, especially in the spring. Players who want to continue to train in bad weather months have to join tennis clubs. Monthly dues added to the cost of court time quickly become very expensive.
What's Her Name? - The death of the American tennis player gets much play in the media. I think these things are cyclical and will come around. We are not going to always enjoy McEnroe-Connors or Agassi-Sampras, but American players will come back to the top eventually. It's also misleading because so many international players train or play college tennis in the U.S. The men's team at the University of Illinois now includes players from the UK, Syria, and Australia. It does get difficult for fans to buy in when they don't recognize the players. If you asked a sports fan friend to name a female player not named Williams, I suspect your friend would have a hard time. It's tough to develop much of a rooting interest when you don't even know the players.
Brad Boeker has been a fan of professional tennis for over 30 years. He coaches high school tennis in Illinois.