Why Is American Tennis Dying?

Why Is American Tennis Dying? It's dying a slow death brought on by complications from several contributing causes. Don't be fooled by rosy reports of increased participation among kids. American tennis is declining where it counts—at the college and professional levels, on television and in popular culture.Children tennis in Shanghai The demise of tennis in the U.S. is puzzling because the sport thrives in other parts of the world. Prize money for premier events continues to increase, and top tennis players enjoy remarkable wealth.

Roger Federer is second only to Tiger Woods among the highest-paid athletes. Four of the five richest female athletes are tennis players, according to Forbes magazine. Clearly tennis is alive and well elsewhere, but there are no American men ranked in the ATP's Top 10. The U.S., which dominated Davis Cup in the 1970s, hasn't won since 2007. Television ratings for the U.S. Open are a fraction of what they used to be in the era of Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. So why is a sport that is growing world-wide struggling to survive in America? Many factors contribute to the deteriorating state of tennis in America.

They include the dearth of Americans playing college tennis, the decline in American-based tennis tournaments and the absence of an American male superstar. There was once a time when crops of fresh tennis talent came from the ranks of the NCAA. College tennis served as a training ground for John McEnroe (Stanford), Jimmy Connors (UCLA), Arthur Ashe (UCLA) and John Isner (Georgia). Isner, No. 14, is the highest-ranked American male. Lisa Raymond, who played at Florida in the early 1990s, is the last former women’s college player to break the top 20 in singles. Raymond, 39, continues to play doubles. These days it's tougher to find Americans on college teams in the U.S. Nearly half of all NCAA tennis players are foreigners. Earlier this year, South Carolina's The State newspaper reported that 51 percent of the rosters of 11 state Division I programs were made up of foreign students. The millions of dollars in scholarship money going to non-U.S. citizens has sparked criticism, but that's mostly because some question of whether U.S. taxpayers should be footing the tuition bills of so many foreign players.

The argument rarely touches on how the lack of American players in college is impacting the popularity of the sport at home. In 2012, columnist Tim Joyce wrote a story for Real Clear Sports in which he lamented the disappearance of tennis tournaments in California. That's right, the largest state in the country, the childhood home to Billie Jean King, the Williams sisters and Pete Sampras, has one significant tournament: Indian Wells. The SAP Championship, which has been played in Northern California since 1889, moved to Memphis this year. It is now being relocated to Rio de Janeiro.The Carlsbad WTA tournament in Southern California is moving to Tokyo in 2014.

Southern California has lost four professional tennis tournaments in the last eight years. Meanwhile, the WTA is expanding in Asia. The tour will host 16 events in the Asian-Pacific region in 2014. Five will be in China, home to star Li Na. Television ratings in the U.S. are also not what they used to be, especially on the men's side. Serena Williams remains the most dominant player in women's tennis. When she's in the final of a Grand Slam, television ratings go up. Her 2013 U.S. Open final against Victoria Azarenka drew the highest ratings in 11 years.Williams is dynamic, a tennis icon and—most importantly for ratings in the U.S.—she is American. Matches in which Williams is in the final are outdrawing men's matches, even those with Federer.

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