Tennis is spoiled rotten. If you are wondering exactly when a wonderful game became such a lousy sport, the answer is, the first time a corporate executive gave a 14-year-old a stretch limo to play with.
To the average sports fan tennis is played by pampered, insolent children, run by overmanned businessmen and governed by quarrelsome organizations, and every one of these parties is hopelessly out of touch with the real world. While prize money spirals ever upward—this year the men arc competing for $58.6 million and the women for $35 million—the players seem to do less and less to earn it.
The public might stand for such excess if tennis weren't so boring. In fact, to many sports fans it's irrelevant. When was the last time it led the evening sportscast? John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors are all but gone, Chris Evert is retired, and Martina Navratilova will soon follow. Andre Agassi and Boris Becker arc oft-injured phantoms, and Monica Seles, the victim of a stabbing a year ago, is on indefinite sabbatical. Steffi Graf and Pete Sampras can't hold the sport up alone.
On those rare occasions when a player with a recognizable name takes the court, nothing happens. If you want action, go to a basketball game. In the average men's hard-court match the ball is in play less than nine minutes per hour, and on grass it's less than four minutes. The rest is toweling off, ball-bouncing, pacing and griping about calls. Meanwhile the umpire is saying, "Quiet, please," and if you try to take your seat before a changeover, the players glare at you. Then you find out that every player in the field at The Lipton Championships in Key Biscayne, Fla., in March was given a personal concierge, his or her own private Mr. French.
Some of the most influential officials and observers of the sport are dismayed by what they see: apathetic players reluctant to make even token personal gestures toward crowds or appearances on behalf of sponsors, whom they don't hesitate to squeeze for more prize money. "They give the least back of any athletes," says NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol.
"I think they need to examine their consciences." says Evert, who describes today's players as "unapproachable, defensive, isolated."
John Beddington, director of the $1.72 million Canadian Open, recently told Tennis Week, "I'm incredibly nervous of asking a player [to do something] for fear he'll knock my head off. You get an attitude of 'Why would I bother to do that for you?' It's been created by a superstar's earning lots of money."
Teenage champions turn pro too early and often burn out or become monsters while tennis authorities fail to discipline or educate them, afraid to offend the source of all that lucre. Billie Jean King, who co-founded the women's pro tour in 1970, says, "There is a part of me that wants to knock it all down and start over again."
Jim Courier spoke volumes about the state of the sport with his behavior at the ATP Tour World Championship in Germany in November. Tired after a long year and uninterested in his match against Ukraine's Andrei Medvedev, Courier pulled out a novel, Armistead Maupin's Maybe the Moon, and began reading during changeovers.
If the players are apathetic, why shouldn't the fans be? Attendance fell at this year's Australian Open by slightly more than 31,000. In the U.S., TV network ratings for the U.S. Open last year were off by 12%. In Germany, Europe's tennis mecca, TV ratings for the ATP Championship were down by 25%, even though it was held in Frankfurt and won by national hero Michael Stich.