Globalization or De-Americanization?

I've been looking for a good professional tennis story to write. I thought that maybe a nice article on Kei Nishikori, the Florida-based, Japanese 18-year-old superstar of the moment would be perfect after his totally unexpected win at Delray Beach. Then I read a column by long-time tennis writer Peter Bodo. Peter thinks that the globalization of tennis is ruining the sport. I agree that my sport of choice is not heading in a direction I think it needs to, but the cause isn't globalization.

Mr. Bodo laments the shift toward a more uniform playing surface. I'll join him in that. In my time on this earth, I have seen the game go from one played on a serious diversity of surfaces to three basic surface materials (all with a very clay-like bounce.) The fact that the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) has been slowing down the grass and even changed the grass blend continues to be a disappointment to me. The move was heralded as a means to give clay court specialists, aka "dirt ballers," a better chance of moving through the tournament.

In the past, that never mattered. It used to be that to be a great player you had to have an all-court game, you had to be able to be adaptable to different court surfaces. Rod Laver won on all surfaces. Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, and even John McEnroe all were successful on all the court types. Even the legendary Bill Tilden adapted to different surfaces, and Tilden actually saw the move to a more uniform surface. He wrote in several of his classic tennis books how he believed a dirt surface would become the most preferred. It just took about 50 years longer then he thought.

I've written many a time that academy tennis was the single biggest contributor to the slow, downslope of the game. Yes, Peter, you are right, most of the players all have the same style. Blame that more on Nick Bollettieri than the court surface. It used to be you never went too far from home when learning tennis. So if you grew up on the East Coast, you played on more grass and indoor surfaces. Harry Hopman was the great teacher of choice. Grew up in the middle of the country and you found a lot of clay. Grew up in California and everything was hard cement and high bounce.

But now you send your kids immediately to a large academy in Florida and everyone plays on the same surface, taught by the same coaches, and taught all the same basic everything. Where is the Japanese Mr. Kei Nishikori based out of? You guessed it, sunny Florida, land of the super academies. Yes, the lack of difference in styles makes the game boring to watch. Actually, without the new international faces, the game would be unwatchable.

I also find it interesting that Tennis Magazine itself this month basically features nothing but foreign players. Yes, there is the quick blurb about the U.S. Men defeating defending Davis Cup Champions Russia in the first round, but mostly articles about players like Ivo Karlovic, Nicole Vaidisova, etc. Clearly, the "globalization" sells magazines.

No, the biggest problem with the game is that there just isn't any superstar on the horizon coming from the ranks of America. Just think about World Cup Soccer. When the American team made a run a few years ago, everyone knew who was on the men's team, and they watched the World Cup even though they didn't know about anyone on the French, Italian, or Korean teams. Same with the women. Mia Hamm? You got it. Now where is soccer? I agree, boring for me to watch, and the new captain of the U.S. women's team is from my town. David Beckham won't make soccer much bigger here, either.

Yes, tennis has always been the most international professional sport. Rod Laver, John Newcombe, René Lacoste, Fred Perry, Ken Rosewall, Ilie Nastase, and Bjorn Borg all came from somewhere other than the USA. They were always balanced by Bill Tilden, Pancho Gonzalez, Jack Kramer, Arthur Ashe, Connors, McEnroe, Andre Agassi, and Pete Sampras. Same on the women's side. For every Margaret Court-Smith, there was a Billie Jean King. For Evonne Goolagong, there was Chrissie Evert.

The largest amount of money spent on tennis (both recreational and professional) is still in the U.S. To this day, the bulk of most tennis companies' sales are still in the U.S. Babolat was a long, storied company in the string business. It wasn't until they launched racquets in the U.S. that they became a major force in the game. The largest retailers of tennis equipment are in the U.S. Heck, even Tournagrip, that pesky blue overwrap, is marketed using Pete Sampras and he retired and nearly disappeared from the game. Don't Europeans buy overwrap?

Maybe it's the fall of the Iron Curtain. There is a lot to be said for great rivalry. Who could ever forget the U.S. men's hockey gold medal win and the "Miracle on Ice?" It would never have been possible without the great divergence of communism and democracy. The us versus them mentality driven by cultural and political differences used to fuel a lot of great sports and television drama. Now all that has gone away. Communism is no longer the "great evil" it once was. The influx of foreign players into all sports, and even more so in tennis directly from the fall of communism, means it's no longer us against them, but it's more of a global group hug. Sports needs drama. Sports needs a winner-take-all mentality. Tennis just currently doesn't have any.

I agree with Mr. Bobo, the push of the game toward other parts of the globe will not benefit the game in the long-run. Not unless the U.S. finds the next Connors, McEnroe, Sampras, Agassi, King, or Evert. WTA CEO Larry Scott will do well in the short-term. He's moving the action to where the money is for today. Long-term, the money always will be here. Let's hope the game of professional tennis lasts until the powers that be understand.

Comments and Conversation

March 1, 2008


Soccer is much much much much more interntational than tennis. And much much much much more popular.

March 26, 2008

Mert Ertunga:


One of your best articles. I am surprised there are not more comments. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I also blame a bit the tour for allowing back at the time, the terrible behavior of Connors and McEnroe on the court. It gave the fans in the golden era of tennis the impression that tennis was entertainment with grown-up men cussing the referees and the journalists out. Myabe that is why Sampras never received half the attention that Connors and McEnroe received. Even if he accomplished twice what they accomplished.


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