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Anna and the Kings of the Court
by Scott Handback

Anna Kournikova strolled across the Sea Pines parking lot, and the 40-something male in the Ford pickup nearly wrecks as he watches the strut of this WTA Tour darling.

I'll allow this local male to remain nameless. Suffice it to say, there is some question as to whether the bruise on his neck is the result of the seat belt that dug at his neck as he slammed on the brakes or the swift punch from his wife sitting in the passenger's seat.

As she is at every WTA Tour stop, Kournikova was a main attraction at this week's Family Circle Cup, even though she has yet to win her first professional tournament.

Like the passenger in the aforementioned Ford, it rankles some that the 18-year-old beauty is admired as much for her looks as for her game. But it explains why the world's 16th-ranked player receives more endorsement income than any other female tennis player and has more Internet sites than any other athlete, including Michael Jordan.

And while Kournikova might score a victory for style over substance, she's exactly the type of commodity the national tennis community desires and needs for the game to reemerge as a leading sport in the United States.

Tennis is similarly bolstered every time Andre Agassi decides he is a top professional tennis player and starts acting like one again -- television ratings climb.

While the professional tours use glamor to entice new fans, the USTA attempts to grow the game at the grassroots level. Beginning in 1998, the USTA began a $50 million Plan for Growth campaign that sought to add one million new participants and increase the number of frequent players over the subsequent five years.

The Tennis Industry Association and the U.S. Professional Tennis Association implemented their own similar initiatives earlier in the 1990s, albeit on a smaller scale.

Each effort has been hampered by the lack of communication and an alphabet soup of organizations with aims that are similar but not always congruent. Professional players have the WTA for women and the ATP and ITF for men.

In this country alone, you have the USTA and its 17 sectional offices, not to mention two teaching professional organizations (USPTA and USPTR) and the Tennis Industry Association, which is comprised of tennis manufacturers.

The USTA is definitely the alpha male of this pack. Its revenue from the U.S. Open is about $130 million annually, with a profit of more than $90 million. This makes the organization's annual budget larger than the others combined.

And like the other organizations, the USTA believes it is best equipped to service the tennis industry's needs.

The impetus for all of these growth initiatives was an 1995 article in Sports Illustrated entitled "Is Tennis Dying?" The story also was the alarm for the USTA to change its policy of servicing only its members and begin funneling U.S. Open proceeds into development programs.

Beaufort County has been one of the 150 or so communities across the country to receive some of this funding. The Plan for Growth has introduced many new local players to tennis, as evidenced by robust leagues, public courts brimming with players and high schools fielding increasingly competitive teams.

As a USTA national clinician and the chairman of the USA Tennis Programs Committee for South Carolina, I have seen countless volunteer and paid efforts to increase tennis participation in communities across the country. I have also seen the conflict rise between the national tennis entities because each of them feels the USTA is stepping on their toes.

Just when it seemed the tides of mistrust were beginning to ebb, the USTA announced this March that its operating budget is $13 million in the red, more than $11 million off its original estimate.

USTA executives don't seem concerned. They have more than $165 million sitting in an operating reserve account. But other organizations wonder how, if the USTA cannot handle its own budget, it can handle the entire game of tennis.

Tennis needs the cooperation of the organizations that influence it. USPTA teaching professionals, so protective of their profession, attack the Plan for Growth and its implementation because of its proposed use of park and recreation personnel and other less-trained instructors to conduct programs.

However, these same teaching professionals responded they did not have any more time to spend developing new players and giving back to the game. They said they were too busy with their existing players and were concerned that these "unprofessionals" would soil their profession. The USPTR has been more supportive of this proposal.

This lack of focus on developing new players has had its effects on the state tennis community. The Palmetto Championships, the premier junior tennis tournament in South Carolina, has seen participation fall from a high of over 700 players in the late 1980s to as few as 450 participants two years ago.

Clearly, grassroots efforts alone cannot grow the game. They must be accompanied by fan interest and more prominent treatment from the media. Tennis must be a marketable commodity.

It's amazing that despite the millions spent to attract new players and fans, the surest way to bolster lagging interest is to run a nubile 18-year-old in a tennis skirt past a gawky-eyed male who simultaneously attempts to slam on the brakes and evade his wife's punch.


Scott Handback is the sports copy editor of The Beaufort Gazette. Scott has been teaching tennis for almost 12 years. He has recently joined the USPTR and has been a member of the USPTA since 1991. He was honored to have received the 1999 USPTA South Carolina Pro of the Year award. Scott also serves as chair of the South Carolina Tennis Association's USA Tennis committee and Junior Novice Programs committee. He is also a certified USTA National Clinician.

If you have suggestions or story ideas, he can be reached by telephone at (843) 982-2916.

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