With the national unemployment rate expected to hit 10% soon it's hard to fathom that the once dying sport of tennis is winning a popularity contest. But that's what a recent study by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association says: tennis participation is up 43%.
"Tennis is the fastest-growing traditional sport in the U. S.," David A. Haggerty, president and CEO of Head USA, recently wrote in a press release.
The forty-three percent translates into six million more tennis players out there on the courts of America, which is about twice as many people living in Los Angeles.
Since the public courts don't seem to be crowded, according to some players; and, the resort industry is plowing under tennis courts to expand fitness and golf, the question hangs in the air, the way a served ball does just before it's whacked across the net -- Where are all these new tennis faces?
It seems that the majority of participation has come from organized tennis, like leagues and camps and clinics put together by tennis directors at public and private facilities for youngsters, teens, and adults.
Rod Dulany, executive director of the USTA's Mid-Atlantic Division, said that tennis is more popular because of this organization.
"The USTA focuses on the tennis programs. I firmly believe that's what's at the bottom of all this growth," Dulany said.
Dulany's division has seen its leagues expand by 12,000 additional players since 2005.
"Six years ago in this area anyone could get on a public court," Dulany added. "But with leagues, flights and camps, courts are harder to come by."
New Flex Leagues and park programs, developed through alliances with local parks and recreation departments, veer from the USTA's usual insistence that people buy a year's membership to the organization if they want to participate in a league or summer camp. Instead, these initiatives let people play without becoming a member of the big organization at a cost of $40/year. The requirement to join did kept many people away from tournaments and cast a dull light on the biggest tennis business in the country.
"The USTA Mission Statement says it promotes and develops the growth of the game," Dulany said.
To help kids get started, teaching pros make sure kids have fun with tennis. Pros know that if these mighty-mights don't giggle a bit, they won't want to come back no matter how much a parent pleads. Little racquets, smaller nets, and lighter balls help the first-timers introduction to the game. Quick thinking and quirkiness also help attract kids.
"The little racquets and softer balls are good for the kids," Zoltan Bundics, a teaching pro, said. "But they still like to play swords with their racquets. They like silly games, too. Some don't have anything more to do with tennis than a bit of eye-hand coordination. There just kids."
At the other end of the tennis spectrum are national facilities that concentrate on player development, such as the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Florida. These are the serious tennis devotees. The juniors who train and live here are already marked for the pro tour -- if they have what it takes, which has to add up to more than a wicked forehand, fearless second serve, and impenetrable will.
A regional facility, like the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland, caters to 7-18 year old juniors through its invitation-only Champions Program. These players will use their tennis talents as springboards to Division I colleges and universities. They do not aim at the pro-tour level, although some may reach that height.
The not-for-profit Champions Program, which runs like a school year from September through June, has almost tripled in enrollment from 1999 when 30 kids participated to a 2008 high of 80 kids, according to the facility's marketing manager Reid Snyder.
"They start their day with two hours of school through an accredited distance learning program followed by two hours of tennis training," Snyder said. "After lunch they have a couple more hours of school, then more on-court training. They finish up their day with fitness and study hall."
This facility became the first USTA Regional Training Center six months ago, a recognition of the College Park's success in managing and developing juniors' lives on and off court. Since then this model has been employed by other new regional tennis centers.
Ray Benton, CEO of the Tennis Center at College Park, doesn't believe the surge in player participation has had any affect on enrollment into the Champions Program or any of the other programs this organization offers all age groups.
"If you take that 43% and look at it over the eight years, that's only 4% growth a year," Benton said.
Mr. Benton believes that the real growth for the sport still remains at the grassroots level, which is the place where kids discover the magic of tennis and adults that haven't picked up a racquet in ten years return.
"We need more charismatic teaching professionals at the grass roots level," Benton said.
But the daily grind of many teaching professionals' lives is difficult to replace with consistent enthusiasm and ingenuity on court. Tennis facilities, whether private or public, normally don't hire full-time pros and, therefore, don't pay salaries that include benefits and incentives that would entice pros to make a career out of teaching tennis.
The survey doesn't take into account 2009, which we all know has been the most difficult for families across America. Maybe that's the reason city parks are more crowded with soccer, basketball, and tennis players. In a small park south of Washington DC, tennis players have to wait upwards to an hour for a court. Doesn't seem to bother them, though. They hang out and talk with their hitting buddies, and strike up conversations with other folks waiting to play.
David Haggerty admits that the first six months of 2009 haven't been as good. "Ball sales are down slightly," he said. "Consumers are delaying higher priced items, such as new racquets. Instead, they re-string the old reliable ones."
And what's wrong with the reliable racquet? Nothing, unless it's made of wood and warped. Then you might want to check out eBay or Craig's List for a newer racquet, which is what frugal folks must be doing. In the interest of maximizing their personal wealth, the exchange of goods in cyberspace rocks.
At the pro tour level, way up there in the professional stratosphere, the ATP is feeling the effects of the slump. According to his recent tennis.com post "The Fundamental Fact," Steve Tignor points out that sixteen ATP events are without title sponsors.
Another sign of the times is The Legg Mason Tennis Classic's decision this year not to offer touring pros an appearance fee for its tour 500-level event. It's the first time in its forty-year history this tournament hasn't offered that extra incentive.
As the economic gray cloud continues to sink and spread its messy adversities, tennis will also have to join in the transformation that every person, business and organization must experience in order to adjust. How else will tennis continue its popularity?
But there is good news. In times of doom and gloom people look to each other for support.
"The tennis industry has pulled together multiple equipment manufacturers, its governing body and its federation to share information and work toward keeping the sport accessible," Haggerty said, comfortably knowledgeable about the bright side of human nature in rough times.
In that case, the downward trend isn't so bleak. Just maybe the tennis industry will continue to bond with its constituents and become stronger and bigger. Then players might have to get up even earlier on a Saturday morning to get their favorite court.
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