Are we changing now or will we pay later?
By Jim Reffkin
This year's US Open in New York was the perfect showcase and opportunity for a public discussion of a very controversial issue. The huge attention given to our country's premier tournament event, along with the semiannual meeting of the USTA, set the stage to finally make public our game's need for innovative change.
After considerable planning and cooperation from both the USTA and Tennis Australia, we were able to put together a dynamic tennis forum called "Change Now or Pay Later." It was well attended (standing room only) in the Grand ballroom of New York's Grand Hyatt Hotel; and it offered candid insights into the needs of our governing bodies to pursue innovative ways to increase participation, and at the same time enrich the entertainment value of our sport.
Three key panelists were invited to share valuable information on the state of the industry and propose suggestions to encourage play and attract spectator interest:
Cliff Drysdale - ATP founding father, highly ranked professional player and for the last twenty-five years, ESPN broadcaster.
Paul McNamee - Five Grand Slam titles, former #1 world ranking in doubles, current Tournament Director for the Australian Open and Chairman of their national committee to grow tennis "down under."
Kurt Kamperman - Former USPTA National President and current Director of the Tennis Industry Association.
Kurt set the stage with interesting statistics describing the popularity of leisure sports and how Americans use their limited leisure time; he pointed out the difficultly tennis is having today, as do other leisure time activities, in competing for a very "time poor public."
Paul described a nation wide effort in Australia to limit the length of tennis matches by substituting a match tiebreak in lieu of the 3rd set if each participant has won one set. Their ambitious marketing effort is called "best of two" and is supported by the entire governing body of Australian Tennis.
Cliff Drysdale, in his own precise style, supported McNamee's suggestions and expressed his own candid examples of why tennis must change or "pay later." And he makes it clear, the future payment will be a drop in both viewer interest and participation in USTA programs.
As the moderator of the Forum, I was able to include statistics from competing sports and how they offer innovative programming to attract and sustain participation with their consumers. The Forum was hosted by the National USTA Tennis Innovation Committee which is dedicated to our USTA mission - to research, develop, test, and recommend formats, scoring systems, and other methodologies to increase tennis participation.
One of the most critical issues the forum debated - the lack of interest and participation in doubles - brought alarming information that all levels of doubles competition is dying, including the professional level. Everyone agrees that competing in doubles helps developing juniors become complete singles players and is an integral part of a junior player's competitive maturity. Yet, junior tournaments are not offering it and professional tennis, particularly the ATP, is threatening to abolish it on their tour.
The catch 22 is the ATP players council, made up of doubles specialists, too stubborn and selfish to acknowledge the necessity of change. They believe adopting "super scoring" (match tiebreak in lieu of 3rd set) will allow less talented players a better opportunity to win and thereby diminish the existing doubles players opportunity to fatten their wallets. In essence, the doubles specialists are discouraging the better singles players from participating, even though singles players like Andy Roddick are on record supporting super scoring.
Well, this year's US Open proved otherwise! There have been an endless amount of so called upsets in the doubles events. Seeded doubles (often the specialists) teams were losing everywhere, men's doubles, women's doubles and mixed doubles. Very few matches went to three sets and in the mixed doubles, where they do play "super scoring" there was almost no match tiebreaks played. Could it be the players did not want to go to a tiebreak to determine the match, so therefore played hard to win in straight sets. The pay was sure good, all doubles events awarded $350,000 to the winners and $175,000 to the runner-ups.
Even John McEnroe, one of our greatest doubles players - live during this year's broadcast of the US Open - has spoken in favor of eliminating the third set in order to save doubles as an integral, televised professional event. He even went as far to say that "something must be done" in singles to modify/shorten the fifth set to save the health and welfare of the players. So what's the answer? Merely telling our juniors they will become better singles players if they play doubles? That won't work, we tried that. Its like telling our children to eat more vegetables because its good for you; they want the fast food they see advertised on television, so how much competition will they see on television to motivate them to play doubles? Hardly none, because the players council is too selfish and stubborn to adapt to what will make doubles more entertaining and attractive to television viewers - super scoring. Unfortunately, they are shooting themselves in the foot and they just don't get it!