The Trickle-Down Effect
The head pro at the National Tennis Center says that to continue the growth in the recreational game, the pro tours need to make some changes.
Does professional tennis drive recreational play? The recent participation numbers, thankfully, indicate that there has been a growth spurt. Importantly, those figures were tallied shortly after the 2005 US Open, which was — by almost every measure — a remarkably successful event.
If pro tennis does drive recreational play, then there are four areas that should be addressed to help assure continued growth. Maintaining the status quo is no longer acceptable. Seeking ways to position tennis more favorably must become a higher priority. Success in this regard will create a trickle-down effect that extends to recreational play.
Regionalize the professional tours
Top professional players in this era constantly plead for more time off. Most leading players already shorten their seasons by skipping key tournaments to rest or recuperate. As a fan, though, I want more. The disturbingly large number of scheduled exhibitions weakens any argument that the season is too long.
There should be more, not fewer, tournaments all over the world. I advocate the establishment of four distinct professional tours in North America, South America, Europe, and “Australiasia.”
For years, fans and journalists have complained that top players lack engaging personalities. This is an abject falsehood, but certainly language barriers have an affect on the relationship between athletes and the fans and media. Each continental tour would be open to players from anywhere in the world, but there will be a natural regionalization. Competitors will opt to stay “near home” when given the choice. This would reduce the international travel that wears out athletes. It also creates additional “player jobs.”
The media will become accustomed to the players who support the “local” tour. There will be natural geographic rivalries. Fans will wonder: Which circuit is the best? These questions will be settled during the four majors. All this will create more excitement and, indeed, more rivalries during the four Grand Slams and the year-ending Tour Championships. John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg only played one another 14 times during their careers. This made their meetings in the biggest tournaments feel like championship fights.
Create a shot clock
Begin enforcing the “play shall be continuous” rule. The hardest part of watching tennis matches is all of the “dead time” between points. Players who maintain a quick pace of play are more attractive to follow.
Let’s reduce the time permitted between points to 15 seconds. Tournaments should have a “countdown clock” at the corner of each court, and this will automatically reset after the completion of a point. Fitness will play a larger role and the matches will have a brisker cadence. When there is a natural pause in the action, for extended applause as an example, then it will create some legitimate drama and fans will feed off that.
Include 3rd-place matches
By the final Sunday each week, fans are limited to watching a singles and a doubles final. And that’s it. Tournament directors ought to embrace the same concept that rules at the Olympics (not to mention National junior tournaments), which is to play off for third place. Offer a different split in the prize money for the winner of this match and modify the allocation of ranking points.
This would mitigate fan dissatisfaction due to a non-competitive final and give organizers a built-in assurance in the case of one injury-shortened match.
Make the balls visible
During Wimbledon, which remains our sport’s grandest tournament, the ball too often seems to disappear during telecasts. I advocate using optic orange tennis balls, which would be a better contrast to the green grass courts. It is essential that the most visible tournament is more, well, visible.
The players would accept this change. Consider the new court color at the U.S. Open, which went from “dull” green to “television-friendly” blue. Not a single player complained and, in fact, many indicated that they liked the new color scheme. In the end, orange balls at Wimbledon would make the game easier to follow on television.
See all articles by Bill Mountford
About the Author
Bill Mountford is the director of tennis at the USTA National Tennis Center, the country's largest public tennis facility and home to the US Open. He has been published frequently, speaks at national conventions, and writes a weekly "Ask Bill" column for USTA.com.