The malaise extends all the way to your local tennis courts. At the height of the tennis boom, in 1978, 35 million Americans played the game. That number has shrunk to 22 million. Racket sales in the U.S., which represents roughly half the world tennis-equipment market, fell by 22.6% last year. As for tennis shoes, Nike suffered a 36% drop in U.S. sales in '93 (though business has since picked up).
Even the hardest-working, best-intentioned tour players, cocooned by their wealth, are either unaware that their sport is hurting or unwilling to do anything about it. Graf claims she is under too much pressure already. "Look," she-says, "I need to get away from tennis, not spend more time around it."
Interestingly enough, Agassi, the circuit's most famous hedonist, is among the few stars who understand that tennis is drowning in wretched excess. "It's all take, take, take," says Agassi. "There's nobody to blame except the people who can make it better, and that's the players."
In ease they're listening, here are 10 ways to make tennis better.
1) Players under 17 should be limited to eight tournaments per year.
How many casualties will it take before parents, agents, coaches and governing bodies stop colluding in the ruination of child prodigies? Jimmy Arias and Andrea Jaeger, Top 5 players in the early 1980s, were among the first members of the teenage Hall of Flameout. Having battled a series of shoulder and wrist problems, Arias, now 29, is a mere journeyman on the tour, and the oft-injured Jaeger, 28, has effectively been out of the game for a decade. Yet the women's WTA Tour Players Association and the men's ATP Tour continue to encourage the youth trend. Girls may turn pro at 13 years, 11 months and play 15 events in their first year. Boys may play eight professional tournaments at age 14, and 12 at 15.
Even the International Management Group, the agency that once represented Jaeger and now represents Jennifer Capriati—who at 18 has already felt the need to go on sabbatical—has begun to question the wisdom of allowing young teens to follow grueling schedules that take them all over the globe. "I hate to see them get so good so young," says Bob Kain, who heads IMG's tennis division. "They go through an unbelievably tough period. Something more has to be done to help them."
Players join the tour before their bodies or their games are sufficiently developed. "There is hardly any coach who takes the time to develop good technique and physical fitness," said German coach Klaus Hofsäss in an interview with Germany's Sports Life magazine. "I keep hearing from players, 'My coach says I shouldn't volley!' " Brian Tobin, president of the International Tennis Federation, says, "The coaches, managers and agents who are living off the players don't want to take any risks. They just want the players to get 80 percent of the balls in the court, and the players tend to become robots."
A limit of eight tournaments a year for all players under 17 would at least attempt to safeguard their long-term physical and emotional health and broaden their games, yet still allow for the breakthrough of a phenom. The coaching commission of the ITF—which runs the Davis Cup and Federation Cup competitions and helps oversee the four Grand Slam tournaments—won't go that far, but it has recommended that girls be restricted to four pro events at age 14, six at 15, and 12 (plus the Grand Slams) at 16. The WTA, meanwhile, has named a board of experts to study age and education requirements for girls. But no change is likely to occur in time to prevent 13-year-old prodigies Venus Williams of the U.S. and Martina Hingis of Switzerland from hitting the circuit this season if they choose to.
However, what better expert is there than Seles, who says she turned pro too early? "We've seen the results of playing at 14," says Navratilova, 37, who didn't go on the circuit full-time until she was 17. "It is no accident that I'm not only still playing, but I can contribute intellectually."