On Sunday evening, there was a palpable sense of relief in the TV commentators' voices as the sun went down over the U.S. Open championships. It had been a thrilling, hard-fought final. The matchup had storybook dimensions: tennis's most dominant player, Roger Federer, squaring off against its charismatic elder spokesman, Andre Agassi. Still, John McEnroe, Mary Carillo, and Dick Enberg, the CBS announcers, had reason to be nervous. Last year's finals drew the lowest television ratings in Open history. And this year, despite all the drama and unexpected excitement, there were still reminders that tennis is stuck in a decades-long slump, with the audience for the professional game and the number of Americans playing recreationally both shrinking.
The biggest slight was directed at Robby Ginepri, a doleful-eyed journeyman from Georgia, who suffered the indignity of having his fourth-round match against Richard Gasquet cut off in the middle of the third set so that USA Network could air Law & Order: SVU. For much of the last two weeks, until the epic Agassi-Blake quarterfinal last Thursday, Arthur Ashe Stadium rarely appeared more than two-thirds full. Agassi's comments after his match against Blake—"I wasn't the winner, tennis was"—hinted at how U.S. players feel the burden of keeping tennis alive. Would Allen Iverson ever proclaim in a postgame interview that the real victor that night was the game of basketball?
I spent some time this summer on the men's U.S. pro circuit, where a sense of bitterness about the state of tennis hangs over players' lounges and practice courts. You hear it from the coaches, administrators, and hangers-on, and it gets directed at different targets, but the basic substance is the same: What can make Americans pay attention to tennis? I remember one grizzled coach, a Polish émigré, spinning elaborate courtside conspiracy theories involving various tennis governing bodies and the TV networks, whom he considered nearly as bad as the Communist government he'd defected from. Justin Gimelstob, a smart, outspoken, 28-year-old tour veteran, calls the game—somewhat ruefully—"a niche sport."
Meanwhile, golf has exploded in popularity. This is a sore point in the American tennis community. "Golf is horrible for America," Gimelstob told me. "There are enough overweight out-of-shape people as it is, and you get guys spending five hours on the few days they have off away from their families playing golf, and then going out to eat and drink afterward. It's horrible." There's a Cain-and-Abel element at play here. Golf and tennis are essentially sibling rivals, both raised in white polo shirts, one wielding a 9-iron, the other a wooden racquet, who, during the leisure boom after World War II, left their stuffy country club to seek fame and fortune on a larger scale.
Golf's popularity originally surged in the late 1950s and '60s. You had a golf-nut president, Dwight Eisenhower, and a charismatic regular-guy star, Arnold Palmer, the son of a course superintendent. Public links were going up all over the country. As golf expanded, its core constituency shifted from the old-money WASP establishment to the new technocratic elite. Golf became the pastime of the American business class. Firmly rooted in the culture of the deal, golf found a bigger stage in the '80s and reached an apogee of media attention in the '90s with the arrival of Tiger Woods.
Yet, during the '70s and into the early '80s, tennis appeared poised to grab the limelight. Golf seemed too fusty and stiff for prime time, too male, too redolent of Republicans and retirees, less prepared to shed its exclusive aura. Tennis courts could be found in neighborhoods rich and poor, and the sport already had its Tiger Woods figure: Arthur Ashe, black, from a blue-collar background, tremendously eloquent, poised, and statesmanlike. But tennis's popularity, in terms of people playing, peaked in 1978 and has been dropping ever since. These days, the professional game has some clout abroad, but, in the States, tennis is on the cultural sidelines. The guy with the 9-iron has become an American everyman.
How did this come to pass? Every year brings a new crop of tennis-is-dying articles, with a familiar list of theories. Changes in racquet technology have made for a faster, duller game. Too few colorful personalities at the top of the game, and too few Americans. Poor TV coverage. These are more reductive than helpful. The rise of golf and the decline of tennis can be explained by the changing popular perceptions of the games. In the '50s and early '60s, tennis and golf were aspirational sports, part of the American upper-middle-class package: If you wanted to join, you played. Tennis, as it outgrew its country-club demographic in the late '60s and '70s, gradually became more of a sport than a lifestyle. Most tennis was no longer part of a day at the club and all the upturned-collar conversation that entailed. It was simply a couple of hours of hitting a green ball back and forth over a net.
The irony is that golf has thrived and tennis withered precisely because tennis has worked so hard to expand into a wider demographic. In the '70s and '80s, more public courts were built, more outreach programs were started, and racquets got cheaper and easier to use. Andre Agassi, in his younger, wilder years, played in black denim and lime-green Lycra in order to, as he said last week, "bring something to the game that would maybe impact those that don't normally watch it, maybe to draw interest to the game."
Golf has shed its clubby trappings much more slowly. Tiger Woods never plays tournaments in shorts, let alone black denim and Lycra. Two out of the three American majors this year were held at private clubs. * For better or worse, golf has remained an aspirational sport in the American consciousness, an emblem of the road to success and prosperity. Golf's tent got bigger—and more meritocratic (even Tony Soprano plays golf)—but never lost its peaked shape. Tennis, by becoming a mere sport, plunged into an identity crisis, and was left out of the bounties of American aspiration.
The final insult is how, despite tennis's efforts to woo the people, the sport has never shaken its vestigial associations to the old WASP aristocracy. For evidence of this, you need go no further than the ever chameleonlike and opportunistic Bush clan, whose deep roots in both games co-exist with a knack for political self-presentation. So, while George H. W. Bush is a dedicated tennis fan and player and his eldest son was an avid player well into his 30s—part of W. and Laura's courtship was spent at a Texas tennis ranch—the president now seems to make a point of never being seen with a racquet. Tennis has become a political liability: effete, preppy, what high-schoolers call a "wussy sport." Whereas golf, no matter how fey the links attire or how pricey the greens fees, has become so solidly red-blooded and all-American that even our folksy president can embrace it.