Yesterday the most important tournament in the American tennis year, the US Open, began in Flushing Meadow, New York. And, as the dinner chat indicates, the locals are decidedly underwhelmed: 'Whatever the opposite of a buzz is,' says Lois Katson, a life-long tennis fan and regular at the US Open, 'then this city is gripped by it.'
For the first time in as long as she can remember, Ms Katson is not bothering to make the short journey from Manhattan to watch the championship. 'And I'm not the only one,' she says. 'A friend of mine who has not missed in 25 years has scheduled her vacation for the same time as the championships. I said to her, 'Why you doing that?' She said: 'Seems as good a time as any.' '
As it enters its showcase fortnight, tennis is in far from rude health in its most financially important territory. In May, the magazine Sports Illustrated, the most influential voice of American sport, carried a lengthy diagnosis of the game's condition, which placed it on the critical list. Page after page, the magazine attacked the state of the sport, apportioning blame for its decline. There were the administrators, blimpish, craven, half-witted and greedy. There were the coaches, encouraging their charges to play a dull, safety-first game to avoid injury and loss of earnings. There were the players, pampered, character-free zones, so distanced from the concept of giving spectators a spectacle that, in a tournament earlier this year, one top seed, Jim Courier, read a novel during change-overs. And there were the racket manufacturers, responsible for developing weaponry that has reduced a once noble game to a three-point turn: boom, splat, '15-love'. During the average men's hard-court game this season, the ball, propelled by supercharged strings, was in play for less than nine minutes per hour; on grass, the average was four minutes.
The Sports Illustrated thesis caused a furore in the game. From the moment the edition appeared on the news-stands, it was official: tennis has become a yawn.
In Britain, this view may seem harder to accept. Wimbledon remains robust, building new stands to accommodate the thousands who, starved of national success, wouldn't know good from bad and, in any case, like the strawberries. But elsewhere there is desertion on a Cuban scale and the sniff of crisis. At the Australian Open this year, attendances were down 31 per cent; in Germany, the national television station has announced it will not renew its expensive contract to screen the game because of a dramatic slip in viewing figures; in America, at a time when kit sales for all other sports are recovering from the recession, tennis equipment purchases are in free-fall.
Under such ferocious attack, the game's insiders might have been expected at least to address the problems. Instead, they have closed ranks.
'Tennis does not have a problem,' Boris Becker said during a US Open warm-up tournament last week. 'Since that article, it seems like the American tennis world has gone crazy. Nobody in tennis thinks it's in a bad state.'
Ivan Lendl agreed. 'I don't buy it, not for one second,' he said. 'I think there's some problems, but all sports have problems, and to single out tennis is unfair.'
But the problem that neither player addressed is that the very perception that tennis is dull is in itself damaging.
The professional game has become a ferociously expensive beast to maintain, so sponsorship is essential. Last year, dollars 93m in prize money was handed out; Henri Leconte, ranked 100th in the world, earned dollars 277,126. This sort of money does not come from gate receipts. But sponsors require a public image that oozes glamour, not tedium. They do not need the sort of image summed up by a joke doing the rounds at last week's Volvo International in New Haven, Connecticut: why is Volvo the perfect sponsor for tennis? Because tennis is boring, too.
Earlier this year, Kraft pulled out of its sponsorship of the American women's team, and the men's tour sponsors, Bausch & Lomb, have made it clear they are unlikely to continue with their pricey arrangement. Alarmed lest the cut in funds turns into a haemorrhage, some tennis administrators have taken a more analytical view than Becker and Lendl and are looking at ways to invigorate things.
'Something has to be done to make people stop assaulting us and let the spectators discover for themselves what a great sport tennis is,' says Stephanie Tollison, of the International Management Group, the largest players' agency.
And at the Volvo International, something was done. In an effort to attract more spectators, rock music was played during player introductions and change-overs; the time players could take to compose themselves between serves was reduced; and fans were allowed to move about and shout during games, and then question players afterwards. The experiment was not wholly successful. Andre Agassi said he was embarrassed by the music. 'I think so many players are against this, that this is going to die on its own,' he said. 'I'd be surprised if it didn't'
Andrei Medvedev, the Ukrainian player ranked eighth in the world, said that if administrators wanted to make tennis a spectacle again, radical steps were needed. He suggested that the ball should be made slower, the net raised 6in and wooden rackets reintroduced to shift the emphasis back to skill.
Organisers of the US Open appear to have listened to the criticism. In an effort to handicap the big servers and encourage longer rallies, they have resurfaced the Flushing Meadow's concrete courts with a deeper layer of rubber.
But to fight back, the game's image-makers need to be armed with more than wooden rackets. And they lack the essential weapon in promoting tennis as sexy: character and controversy. Nike, for instance, can put Pete Sampras in baggy shorts and flog Andre Agassi caps, but that is as nothing in building an image compared with Eric Cantona saying 'sheet' on a cinema advertisement. The speed with which Luke and Murphy Jensen, doubles-playing brothers with surfing chic, were picked up by sponsors indicates the circuit's star-starvation. The problem is, so far the boys have won only one tournament.
Indeed Lois Katson and her friend will require more than interlude music and the chance to ask Jim Courier about his between-rally reading matter (it was a novel by Armistead Maupin), to be tempted out of their air-conditioned units and away from the OJ Simpson trial on day-time television. 'You got to remember, it's the hottest time of the year here right now, and there's gotta be something worth going outside for,' Ms Katson says. 'But there ain't. There's no Connors, no McEnroe, even Martina won't be there this year. I wouldn't go into my kitchen to watch some of the guys they have now. They lack charisma, they lack seasoning. I tell you, in New York, nobody's interested in tennis any more.'
Well, not quite. Howard Schoor, a lifelong US Open fan, will be at Flushing Meadow this week. 'New Yorkers like controversy, not tennis,' he says. 'Me, I'm a tennis fan, I know what to look for. McEnroe and Connors, they brought electricity, but they weren't as good as Sampras. He'd blow them off court. These days you don't get the Fourth of July fireworks, you just get tennis. And it seems people just don't like that.'
Mr Schoor applied for tickets to the Open through the lottery at his local club. When he missed the cut, he wasn't worried and picked up his tickets from scalpers instead. The good news was, for the opening day of competition they were offering the best seats at face value.
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