A year ago, there was a widely held perception that the sport of tennis was in deep trouble, if not dying, as a cover article in Sports Illustrated suggested. The sport seems to have made something of a comeback, if NBC’s 43-percent ratings boost from last year for the first weekend of Wimbledon is an indicator.
The bounce, so to speak, appears to have come from a stronger commitment from the players to clean up their images, the Jeff Tarango incident notwithstanding.
“Tennis is not dying. We have been through various crises,” said HBO analyst Billie Jean King. “The women are giving up more and more of their time, and (Monica) Seles coming back would be fantastic for the sport.”
That said, there’s still an overriding perception that tennis players are spoiled and pampered, unwilling to look beyond their own needs for the good of the sport.
For instance, NBC’s John McEnroe says the relentless scheduling of tournaments precludes players from taking the time to meet people in the cities they play in, much less perform charitable acts on their own.
“People need to see these types of people in person. They’re human beings. They don’t see that,” said McEnroe. “They just sort of see them going from one city to another, playing another tournament and that is boring and people won’t relate to that.”
And then there are the dealings with the media, which have been tempestuous at best. For instance, Boris Becker and Sergei Bruguera took fines rather than agree to meet with the media at the French Open.
Dick Enberg, McEnroe’s colleague, has suggested that each of the top 10 ranked male and female players should spend a weekend on a PGA Tour stop to see how golfers handle the media and the public.
“That would just be a wonderful example as to how it can be done,” said Enberg. “We’re not all the enemy. We’re not always trying to make the player miserable. But there really is a way to handle it.”
Some shots at Graf
As if to drive home the point that tennis still has a way to go, ESPN’s Brett Haber has taken top women’s seed Steffi Graf to task for abruptly dropping plans to team with Martina Navratilova for doubles in order to give her ailing back more of a chance to heal.
Haber, in a Prodigy article, accused Graf of “utter disrespect” for Navratilova and said she was taking part in the “wholesale egocentrism” that is plaguing tennis, noting that Graf did not pull out of the singles competition, but left Navratilova high and dry.
“It is not as if the injury suddenly sprung up. It has been there and it will continue to be there,” wrote Haber. “In this case, it was simply an excuse. And in a sport that is in such dire need of a public relations boost, neither Graf, nor anybody else, can afford to make excuses to the public.”