During the late Seventies the sport climbed towards its peak. In those days there was real competition and true class - McEnroe, Borg and Connors at the height of their extravagant powers, Nastase not yet diminished to an irritating and pathetic clown.
It may be tougher for the name players to string together the wins now, but that is in no sense due to greater quality in the growing ranks of young men lured by funny money into the professional game. More truthfully, it is that all now play at a similar level of compressed mediocrity. With the arguable exception of Pete Sampras (two Grand Slams this year), there is no truly dominant player among the men. The winning game these days is robotic tennis and only robots can play it. They may not have started out as robots, but that is what the game does to them. And robots are not famous for their charisma.
'Being absolutely honest, I don't enjoy watching the spectacle of the game any more,' says John Barrett, a former British Davis Cup player and captain as well as BBC television commentator and member of the All England Club. 'I admire greatly the terrific athleticism, speed and technical expertise. My problem is that the game has become one-dimensional. Guys hitting like hell.'
Barrett is not the only one to be underwhelmed by power tennis. 'I thought the Courier-Sampras Wimbledon final was the most boring match I've ever seen,' says David Lloyd, the former British Davis Cup player and now owner of a profitable chain of tennis and leisure centres. 'Two and a half hours and one break of serve. Exciting? Do you think that's exciting? I turn off now. I don't like to watch it.' Even some of the players are turning off, led by Andrei Medvedev, the world No 6. 'Sometimes I watch the tennis on television myself and I find it boring. I only look to see the tactics, not because I enjoy the games. Sometimes you only see aces and lots of mistakes.'
The sponsors are worried. The women's tour has already lost Kraft and they may not be the only company to pull out. 'Though I'm sure it's strictly the fault of the sport, there has been a fall-off in hospitality purchasing,' says George Hendon, tournament director of the Eastbourne and Brighton women's events. 'While prize money and improved facilities are costing more, companies think twice in a recession.
'Men's tennis has certainly got problems. If you switch on your TV and see men's tennis transmitted, all you can see is caverns of empty seats. Sponsors want value for money. Individual tournaments have to produce name players. If you're asking a sponsor to put up prize money they expect to see player commitment of equal value. This is the problem we've faced in the women's game in recent months. Players' injuries, the Seles stabbing - Steffi Graf has had to take on an increased burden so then she's subject to more injuries herself. So it goes on - and what happens then is, people are starting to talk about it. You can get unlucky for one particular year, but then you've got to come up with the goods the next year.'
'Tennis is the highest-paid professional sport apart from motor racing,' David Lloyd says. 'I'm not so sure sponsors can keep funding the kind of payment they're asked for. And pro golf is run better - it's stricter with behaviour, stricter with players who drop out. If you don't get exciting matches and TV drops out then the sponsors will drop out. I can see it coming. If the ATP don't see it, they're mugs.'
But the Association of Tennis Professionals is worried too. So are Adidas, whose sales are 40 per cent down on last year in France, and 30 per cent in Germany. At a seminar in Frankfurt the week before last, where television executives, tournament directors and sportswear manufacturers convened for a forum on 'The Fans' Experience', Mark Miles, the chief executive of the men's tour, spoke of 'difficulties just below the surface that cannot be ignored'. 'The players do not realise that they are in the entertainment business,' the American television executive Denis Deninger complained. 'They need to open up more and let the audience share in the highs and lows of their emotions.' Luke Jensen, who with his brother Murphy won the doubles at the French Open and is clearly an alumnus of the Loose Cannon school of tennis, advocated rock music, lasers and smoke. 'Let's go crazy; let's go bananas; let's get rid of white clothes; let's get rid of the country club - people want to see out-of-control tennis.'
The temptation is to suggest that people simply want to see less tennis. 'There's saturation on TV,' John Lloyd, the former British No 1, says. 'In North America after Wimbledon they had three tournaments in a row. The first final was Greg Rusedski v Javier Frana. The next final was Amos Mansdorf v Todd Martin. The next was Michael Pernfors v Todd Martin. People say, what's going on here? Agassi is by far the biggest draw in the men's game, and he's No 24. Who's going to pay to watch Sergei Bruguera apart from his friends? There's no pizazz out there. And people aren't interested in watching 120mph serves any more. Who can be excited about watching Goran Ivanisevic? No one hits a drop shot any more, no one hits a drop volley or a slice.'
The crisis in tennis includes concerns about the well-being and commitment of some of its main players. When eight millionaires lined up for the ATP Tour Championship which ended in Frankfurt last Sunday, two big names were missing. Once again Andre Agassi has finished his year off form and out of sorts, while Boris Becker, last year's winner, is not only preoccupied by impending fatherhood but has also, according to Stefan Edberg, not been physically fit all year.
The most alarming collapse has been that of Jim Courier, whose mental condition is at present under scrutiny after he was observed reading an Armistead Maupin novel between breaks during his defeat against Medvedev in the ATP World Championship. 'I just felt like doing it,' he protested afterwards. 'It was an interesting book and I felt like reading.'
The first inclination is the facetious response - at least Maybe The Moon is a literary improvement on the Beano that Bjorn Borg famously used to turn to for a little cultural refreshment. You could also take it as a welcome sign that at last one major player is evincing a microdot of personality. The more sinister interpretation, however, is that here is a man at the end of his rope. People tend to behave in rather peculiar ways when they are stressed beyond endurance and Courier has already admitted to being exhausted. 'Right now my best surface is bed,' he said after losing to one of the Who? fraternity, Magnus Gustafsson, in his opening match in the Paris Indoor. 'He's not himself right now,' his coach, Jose Higueras, said 10 days ago. 'He's obviously not emotionally or psychologically at a level to compete with these guys.'
The mental implosion of this admirable player adumbrates many of the things which have gone wrong with the game. 'You'd say he was the toughest of players,' Barrett says, 'but it's the intensity. The lesser players through sheer physical prowess can now threaten the great players. Courier doesn't have an easy match any more.'
Few players, too, are so inspired by avarice that they can endure this repetitive and punishing life for much longer than it takes them to amass more in the way of worldly goods than most of us can imagine. Witness Becker's angst over the last few years. At times the impression given is one of the sheer emptiness, the joy of selfexpression being replaced by brute detachment. Such dislocation of the human spirit transmits itself to the spectator. A bunch of millionaires go round the world banging balls at each other. Why should we care?
The disenchantment of the crowd was never more apparent than in the final of the Paris Indoor when Ivanisevic was greeted with derision each time he aced Medvedev. His response, too, was less than helpful to a sport needing to reclaim its soul. 'If you play the final of a big tournament you are not going to make a clown of yourself to make people happy.'
'It is a very difficult problem because the young, knowing of nothing else, don't think there's a problem,' Barrett says. 'The great beauty of the game is what one misses when one's seen it. But they haven't seen it. They don't know any different. The game now is almost too easy to play. It's more fun for the club player but it's removed the premium on skill for the professional.'
Now that modern technology has reduced the premium on skill, is it time to move the goalposts? The answer, Barrett feels, might lie in reverting to the old rules concerning footfaults, where players had to keep the left foot on the ground throughout delivery of serve and hold back the right leg until the ball had been struck. It is, he says, 'almost too late to do anything about rackets. If the ITF had over the years been known as a body that guarded its game carefully for spectator appeal, it would have been easy to say, 'If you have rackets made of any materials you like they must not have a head bigger than X and they must flex between Y and Z' Then you've got a more flexible frame and a smaller head, like wood. It's not as powerful, and the skill factor comes in again.'
Billie Jean King's concern is the constriction of personality development that the sport's schedule inflicts on players barely past puberty. 'Most players should be going to college, but it's the old chicken or egg thing. The players say, 'When I go to college I don't get enough tennis, it's not competitive enough.' If all of the people who said that would go to college, they would be taking care of the need automatically and it really helps their personalities. They're better adjusted.'
The need for personalities in the sport, acknowledged at the ATP seminar in Frankfurt, could go a large way to explaining the growing success of the Seniors Tour. This plans eight or possibly 10 events next year and, within three years, 20 tournaments worldwide including England, France and Russia. John Lloyd, one of its members, says he has never been so busy, having played 33 weeks this year. 'It sounds terrible but the decline in men's and women's tennis is helping us. We'd rather see Connors and Borg and McEnroe than Bruguera or even Pete Sampras.'
The tour is run by Net Assets, a company in which Jimmy Connors is a 50 per cent partner. Big business likes them, Lloyd says, citing the 'huge' corporate aspect of much of tennis, particularly in the States, and its disenchantment with the manners of the modern player. 'A lot of companies are getting peeved about stars coming into cocktail parties in jeans and a T-shirt, staying for five minutes' conversation and that's it. Whereas a lot of us have matured and can go in there and talk to these people about things they want to know about. Obviously Jimmy's working triply hard to make it a success, and it's not unusual to see Borg and Vilas play two-hour pro-ams, not just the plebs like myself. Sponsors are coming in and pinching themselves and saying, 'At last the people are working.' '
The news is not all dire, of course, particularly in Britain. Last week, Ian Peacock, the Lawn Tennis Association's chief executive, claimed that 'we are bucking the trend' in Europe and the US; Wimbledon returned a record pounds 16.4m profit, figures for facilities, results and world rankings are encouraging and sales of rackets and balls have increased here, though admittedly we are 'coming from a much lower base'. Ah well, it only needs tennis across the world to languish into a decline and we might even come up with a Wimbledon champion again.
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