Twenty-one million Americans, drawn like fruit flies to a vast ripening, now play tennis at one level of incompetence or another. This national mania is not without value. Golf courses are no longer as crowded, for one thing, and there aren't as many drunks driving home after a match. Unlike golf, tennis has no par to alert man to his inferiority. He can reach new depths without the need of a 19th-hole elixir to ease the pain. A swig of Gatorade will usually do it.
One result of the boom is that tennis tradition and etiquette are being trampled on daily as public courts bubble over with beginners and gaudy new tennis clubs with sauna baths and inflationary fees spring up like snapdragons. But this is not so objectionable when you consider that participation is the middle name of the game, and that otherwise unemployed divorcees and retired Army officers are now able to pad their savings accounts by becoming "pros" to the eager masses. At slightly cut rate, they teach the rudiments of the game to housewives, career girls and chubby account executives no longer embarrassed by their impenetrable awkwardness.
Awkward tennis players are, in fact, the rule. In Atlanta, a 56-year-old former baseball player who took up tennis five years ago gets $14 an hour teaching recruits how to hit with a baseball grip. A pragmatist, he does not waste time having them change from forehand to backhand. One facet of the tennis boom is that it has the power to cloud men's minds so they cannot see.
Believers now credit the game with benefits that run the gamut from shaping up the out-of-shape to resolving family and community slumps; getting wives out of the backgammon ruck and children off Gilligan's Island; being the bane of lethargy and the great social tonic of suburbia. In one Connecticut town a nuclear executive named McCormack and a former member of the French Underground named Martin, now an inventor-entrepreneur, have given up golf and soccer, respectively, to converge on tennis. They rearrange their international flight plans in order to make Monday, Wednesday and Sunday doubles matches.
Politicians and movie stars struck by the game regularly allow themselves to be shown up in celebrity tournaments on television. Bill Cosby's advance from a rank to a competent amateur player has been followed almost weekly by millions watching such events. Most of the stars, however, still play like Glen Campbell, and do not seem to mind.
Out of this phenomenon of American awareness some justice has also been served. For example, the Coral Oaks Tennis Club, where I sometimes play in Miami, is owned and run by a lemony little one-time park pro named Leo Full-wood, whose specialty is the teaching of spin. Leo labored on the public and private courts of Dade County for 28 years, suffering the erratic backhands of his pupils and ennui from the Florida sun that turned his skin to cork. He then scraped together $1,000 and began to build—a bucket of clay at a time—his dream club.
That was five years ago. Recently, Leo turned down $700,000 for Coral Oaks. He says he will not consider selling until the offers begin at a million. Leo vacations in Australia and seldom has time to teach anymore.
Growing five times faster than golf, tennis is, indisputably, the passion sport of the '70s. According to a Harris survey, it is now preferred over golf as both a sport to play and to watch. Televised tournaments have multiplied from three a year to three a month. A hundred thousand adults spend at least a week of their vacation time at one of the nation's 200 tennis camps, where their game gets bullied up to size by a name pro (Laver, King, et al.) at up to $500 per week. This summer the U.S. Post Office released as a collector's item a 10-cent envelope embossed with a racket and ball to commemorate tennis' centennial year.
As booms go, the bowling miniboom of the 1950s and the golf boom that is just now peaking out produced none of the sustained family-wide enthusiasm tennis has. The tide seems irreversible—it could, by one marketeer's estimate, be 10 years before manufacturers catch up with the demand for rackets and balls, the bare essentials. No pea-shot criticism will turn this around, and should not. Those who question the game's obvious good health would see a walk on the beach as an invitation to feed the sand fleas, and should be dismissed as lunatics.
At the risk of adding balance to this report, however, a few bites should be acknowledged. The costs, for one, might strike a discerning beachcomber as already out to sea. Tennis' proletarian appeal as a low-budget game, which accompanied its successful break from country-club snobbism, is jeopardized now by soaring court-time prices and lesson fees. It is conceivable today that a man or woman could spend thousands of dollars to taste the wine of that first crisp serve. ( Gardnar Mulloy asks $50 an hour at the Fontainebleau on Miami Beach, clearly on the assumption that anyone who wants a lesson that bad deserves it.)