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The Decline of Tennis in the United States


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There's something going on that the vast majority of people don't know about: Tennis in the United States is dying.

Slowly, methodically, over the past generation, college programs have been eliminated, one-by-one, as funding priorities go towards other things - college tennis has been deemed an expendable casualty of the budget wars - college tennis has always been a proving ground and development center for tennis at the professional level, but that won't be the case for much longer if the current trend continues: 250 college tennis programs have been eliminated since 2000.

Here's a story that summarizes it very nicely:

"They Cut My Team - UMBC and the Alarming Decline of College Tennis" on tennisfiles.com

Now, I'm the first to admit that people fighting to keep college tennis alive in the U.S. can be legitimately considered a "special-interest group." There's a big difference between children going hungry, or classrooms being funded, and the existence of college tennis programs. My point isn't to argue the case that the world is going to end if college tennis goes away; merely to point out that the problem exists, and is very real.

You are now armed with information that you didn't have before - you can do whatever you wish with it, but remember, a generation from now, when an American hasn't won a Grand Slam in two decades, the problem started here - it actually started many years ago. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if Serena Williams will be the last great American tennis player for the forseeable future, and she's a special case, since she and Venus were raised to be professional tennis players from a very early age.

The only hope for American tennis is for a program to emerge like Nick Bollettieri's campus, where elite juniors can go and give up their lives for the sport. Without college tennis programs, most promising players' careers will end when they graduate from high school, and the truly elite juniors (and I'm talking 8, 10, or 12 years old), won't even go to high school, since they'll be living at whatever emerges as the next Bollettieri school.

So it goes.

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Well, you knew I would weigh in on this, right?  What even I didn't know is that, after thinking about your post, I really can't say that I have a strong feeling one way or another about whether this trend is good or bad.   College sports, pretty much all college sports, is now a business for the college, wouldn't you say?  If you can't fill a stadium, get more alumni bucks or otherwise make lots of money on the sport, its not of major interest to these academic institutions.  So, for most players who go to college, who won't become professional at their sport afterwards for whatever reason (talent, injury"¦), is removing this major time killer a bad thing?  Wouldn't a good intramural program or "club" team wind up, in hindsight, to have been better for this majority of players?  And, for those who do make it, how much academics do they get in college anyway, given the time they spend on their sport?  Wouldn't they be better served by being part of the "leave school, get a tutor, go to a good tennis academy & concentrate on the sport" concept?  So, that leaves some youngsters who are a)on the cusp and may/may not make it & may not know which road to take &/or b)are not financially endowed enough to go the academy route.  Not sure this is so different from any subsequent post-college career/grad school choice.

As someone who spent quite a bit of time in college playing squash on a #7 ranked team (after converting from High School tennis - did I mention that I was Captain of the NYC High School Tennis Team that won the City Championship each year and that I was ranked as the #1 doubles player in H.S.?  Well let me be sure to do so) and who, at my best, became a top 100 US amateur squash player afterwards, I can't say that the lack of a squash team would have been, in hindsight, a bad thing for me.  Not that squash was the only thing keeping me away from my studies -- yes, I'm talking to you Grateful Dead (and surrounding "culture") - and to you too '60s/'70s "politics" - and even to you, my live in girlfriend, later to be wife, later to be ex-wife.  Not that I turned out badly -- a good career, decent standard of living and a still going strong 30+ year 2nd marriage.  And not that playing on that squash team didn't help me in many ways.  But, as I said, I remain unsure about the role of sports in college & therefore unsure of whether the disappearance of college tennis teams is a bad thing.

Nothing like day after Thanksgiving pondering.  Happy Holiday - its 64 out today, maybe I'll go play some tennis  :) .

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But, as I said, I remain unsure about the role of sports in college & therefore unsure of whether the disappearance of college tennis teams is a bad thing.

Steve, I think you noticed I didn't pass judgment on this condition; merely pointed out that it's very real, and that it exists. I'm not so sure you and I aren't on the same page.

When it trickles down to high school level (and who's to say it won't?), then I think we might have a bigger problem. But even *then* the USTA should be able to pick up some of the slack.

Things go in cycles - maybe tennis is just not meant to be in the United States right now. That's not the end of the world; modern-day tennis puts such rigors on the body that its decline may just prevent untold numbers of joint injuries later in life - it has become a sport that relies on stressing your joints to the maximum, and I'm not sure that's such a great thing. When pros today are in their 40s and 50s, they're going to be having hip and knee replacements, back surgeries, arthritis, and who knows what else - and I'm not talking about people like Federer, who can afford a full-time sports physician; I'm talking about the other 99.9% of players who can't.

You look at the baseball card bubble 20-30 years ago - it's because middle-aged while males deluded themselves into thinking that it would be an ever-rising investment; then, the next generation stepped in, and didn't give a hoot about baseball cards - the enormous supply exceeded demand, and baseball cards became items that you could hardly even give away.

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One observation from a little over a week ago:

"American Men May Be About To Dominate World Tennis Again" by Wiley Schubert Reed on fivethirtyeight.com

This is a good point, but I'm not sure it's a great point:

Wiley Reed (the author) is a sixteen-year-old junior player without a national ranking. While I'm sure he plays a decent game, I doubt he's thinking about the big picture of tennis twenty years down the road.

It's pretty well-known that the current crop of American juniors getting ready to enter the pro ranks have done well in the Junior Grand Slams (I even mentioned it here), and I'm not really qualified to know what the demise of college tennis will do to players at the absolute top level - there will *always* be multi-millionaire parents paying $80 an hour for their kids' tennis lessons, five days a week, starting when they're 4 years old. But this might make tennis something like "Ski Jumping" - our country might have five great players, while the general infrastructure of tennis collapses beneath them, which will have ramifications showing up only a couple of decades down the road. Take the Williams sisters as an example - they grew up playing on public courts, but what if there weren't any public courts for them to play on?

I have an acquaintance named Sol Schwartz who played for UMBC - I'm going to invite him to comment on this thread because he knows infinitely more than I do about what all the ramifications of this are, and how they relate to the current crop of top juniors.

Some other opinions:

11/21/13 - "Why Is American Tennis Dying?" by Melissa Lawrence Corbett on bleacherreport.com

08/17/15 - "American Tennis' Deep Decline Necessitates Shift To Youth Development" by Darren Heitner on forbes.com

And finally, something completely different:

05/26/15 - "Conspiracy String Theory: How New Technology Killed American Tennis" by Ryan M. Rodenberg on sports.vice.com

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This topic doesn't necessarily have anything to do with college tennis being a next step to the pros, but almost everything to do with the salvation of the sport of tennis as a whole in the US.  Right now tennis is on life support at best in the US.  The current average age of a tennis player is now 65 years old.  The USTA has failed in their project assuming that ROGY would bring in all of these juniors.  It has not.  They created a whole new set of rules altering the structure of the junior tennis tournament schedule thinking that it would cut back on costs and promote stronger competition at various levels.  That plan has now backfired.  Now universities are not necessarily using title 9 as an excuse for eliminating men's teams, but using "the current state of the sport" as an excuse for cutting both teams.  Most parents and young kids who are going to invest fairly large amounts of money in a sport as a kid do so with the intention of having a long range goal in that sport.  Kid's dream of the pros, but in almost all cases, the realistic goal on that pathway is high school and college level participation.  They want to earn scholarships and play their sport.  Virtually no parent will invest significant amounts of money, which is what it takes to achieve this goal, on what amounts to a hobby.  If that realistic end game is eliminated, kids will not play.  This is already being demonstrated in that there are more females playing than males.  This would be a direct reflection of the fact that title 9, as it has been applied, has lead to the elimination of hundreds of programs already and a disproportionate # of scholarship opportunities for men (4.5 for a fully funded men's team) to women (8 for a fully funded team).  Looking ahead another year or 2, when the NCAA drops the required # of sports to maintain a D1 status from 14 to the proposed 12, it will be a bloodbath for tennis at the collegiate level.  

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After seeing the back and forth comments about US tennis, the loss of college tennis teams and its possible impact on US tennis going forward I added this recent and timely observation from the FiveThirtyEight section of ESPN "American Men May be About to Dominate World Tennis Again as an added observation.  Frankly, this is a topic about which I'm clueless.

After seeing some further comments I returned and reviewed who the author is, Wiley Schubert Reed

Admittedly the following observations have nothing to do with US tennis and the loss of college tennis programs and other college sports, but still I thought it interesting.

Wiley Reed wrote a reasonably sophisticated article in the mode of FiveThirtyEight...and he is a high school aged kid.  He may have no chance of ever getting ranked in men's tennis but he has a nicely written and researched article that may get him started on a career as a writer, author, researcher or journalist or journalist/researcher.   He most assuredly must have had editorial assistance but I'd bet the bulk of the article and the research are his.

I was a high school journalist, a sports page co editor, and the recipient of a high school journalism award from the Columbia School of Journalism....and I never would have approached the sophistication and research behind that article.  Kudo's to Wiley Reed.  The article reads more like something out of college to me, and frankly its a researched piece with citations, that is more a function of an advanced researcher.

FiveThirtyEight or more familiarly known as 538 is a very interesting journalism blog started in 2008 by Nate Silver who gained early fame for developing a statistical model to predict the careers and development of major league baseball players and then built a predictive model for political campaigns that was extraordinarily accurate during the 2008 elections.

As Silver describes it .....

But we take our science and economics and lifestyle coverage very seriously.... It's a data journalism site.

So, again I commend Wiley Reed for his article, written at a young age, but considered worthwhile enough to be included in a revolutionary new type of journalism that blends data with research and writing to explore often popular topics with a depth not often found anywhere else.

Now as to the slow death of American college tennis programs and the current state of top ranked American tennis players....I'm not so sure how they are related.  I doubt few of the current top ranked tennis players in men's and women's tennis are the products of college tennis programs.  (I haven't checked).  Still its unfortunate for those good enough to possibly earn college scholarships to play tennis.  That is unfortunate.  College is way too expensive.

College sports have morphed into big business.  Schools more and more change leagues and often today join leagues with no geographical sense wherein the teams play against teams across the land radically altering travel schedules and costs.   All of that is a shame.

In any case more power to Wiley Reed who demonstrated skill in a developing form of interesting and informative journalism.

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Right off the bat, you can mention John Isner and Steve Johnson, 2 four-year college players that have achieved a pretty successful level of play to this point - I think that we could agree. It is a fact that there is a very strong crop of American juniors that are transitioning into the pro ranks right now, lead by. Noah Rubin, who did play 1 year at Wake Forest last year, reaching the final of the NCAA tournament. A few of the others, who the USTA would probably consider potentially better prospects, are skipping college and going directly to the pros. Several of these kids have indeed competed against each other in the past several junior slams. These are great achievements, but does not guarantee success at the next level. I'm not so sure that any of them will be able to reach the level necessary for the average American sports fan to even take notice. That will require a slam win at least, not to mention a top ranking. Ultimately, it will take far more at this point than a high ranked American to pull the sport out of the depths to which it has declined.

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On 11/27/2015 at 2:45 PM, DonRocks said:

I have an acquaintance named Sol Schwartz who played for UMBC - I'm going to invite him to comment on this thread because he knows infinitely more than I do about what all the ramifications of this are, and how they relate to the current crop of top juniors.

I am absolutely devastated to find out that Sol Schwartz, our own cowboysol, passed away from a massive heart attack at age 46 earlier this year.

I cannot over-emphasize the devastating effect this will have on American college tennis - Sol was fighting, all by himself, and now he's gone.

Mar 21, 2016 - "Tribute to a Gentle Man" by Lisa G. Stone on huffingtonpost.com

Mar 31, 2016 - "Sol Schwartz Remembered as Inspirational, Selfless" by Simone Ellin on jewishtimes.com

May 3, 2016 - "In Memoriam ... Sol Schwartz: 1970 - 2016" on longislandtennismagazine.com

Aug 9, 2016 - "Tennis News from America: Who was Sol Schwartz, and Why Is There a Junior Tournament in His Memory?" on 10sballs.com

Sol's Facebook Page.

This community will be offline for one hour, tomorrow, 12-1 PM, in Sol's honor.


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Thank you so much for honoring Sol's memory for going offline tomorrow. Today I learned that my husband of almost 22 years ,( today would of been our 22nd anniversary ) was on this blog and I enjoyed reading his post I never saw about college tennis. His passion and love for tennis and especially college tennis was incredible.  I hope that his dream will come true and tennis becomes a sport that becomes popular again and colleges will participate. This summer,  A tennis tournament was created in Sol's memory by Lisa Stone, who shares Sol's passion for tennis. It was called the All In tournament . Meaning for all levels at a low price that was very affordable.  30 dollar entry fee. The players and parents said it was the best tournament they paricapated in. You can learn more about the tournament by following #thesol on Facebook. Our hope is too continue the tournament in Sol's name and have it in different cities. My hope and dream is that Sol's dream of saving college tennis comes true . #savecollegetennis ?  IMG_5625.PNG


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