- Historic Sites
The Tennis Racket
How a Courtly Game Became Big Business
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
There were perhaps a dozen indoor tennis facilities in America in 1960. Now there are more than seventeen hundred. As late as 1910 there was exactly one known professional tennis coach in America. There are well over five thousand qualified instructors today. The USTA’s Education and Research Center is an indication of the enormous growth of American tennis and the new directions the organization has taken in recent years. The Center was started in 1972 with a voluntary chairman, a paid secretary, and a budget of $10,000 to help provide tennis information to interested organizations. Today the Center has a staff of twenty-one professionals and a budget of over $500,000. Perhaps the most dramatic area of growth, though, has been in women’s tennis, amateur and professional. With new interest in women’s sports at the college level, tennis has benefited mightily. In 1974 there were no known college scholarships awarded to women for tennis. Today there are more than a thousand. In 1974 the women professionals were playing for a total of $900,000 in prize money. By 1978 the take was up to $5,500,000, and this year it reached $9,000.000.
With sudden expansion and quick cash, there is, inevitably, dislocation. Tennis has long been known as the Balkans of sport, a turbulent area given to internecine warfare and whose inhabitants seem to enjoy nothing more than a bitter jurisdictional dispute in which everyone is accused of breaking faith. The increased money available has served to smarten the sting of discord. Some women professionals don’t think the USTA is responsive to their needs, and the USTA is often hurt that the women don’t appreciate all that has been done for them. And so it goes. Tennis is now awash with conflicting groups and associations, each producing its own tournaments, each with its own sense of territorial prerogative. Those of us who love tennis and yearned to see more of it on television now sometimes see too much. Matches from various tours are taped and rerun later. As a result, on a recent weekend, it was possible to see Roscoe Tanner playing in three separate tournaments in three different cities on the same day.
A few grace notes of tennis seem to have been irretrievably lost in the gold rush. Grass courts have been dug up for faster-drying composition courts to accommodate the needs of television. The Eastern Lawn Tennis Championship, an established tournament since 1926, changed its name in 1974 to become the Medi-Quik Tennis Open, the better to promote a medicinal spray. Winners never jump over the net anymore, because at these prices no one can afford to run the risk of twisting an ankle.
If tennis was once artificially genteel, it now sometimes lapses into the gratuitously vulgar. Hie Nastase’s hysterical outbursts have become commonplace. The tradition of performers who misbehave in public is an old one. Suetonius reveals that the Emperor Augustus once banished an actor named Pylades from Rome for making to a Roman audience the same obscene gesture Jimmy Connors favors. But tennis players are notoriously difficult to rebuke. Nastase was fined $1,000 and suspended for twenty-one days as a result of his outburst in the 1976 U.S. Open. He served his time playing round-robin tournaments in Venezuela and Hilton Head, South Carolina, from which he earned a total of $57,000.
But saying that tennis is a sport with problems is like complaining that Dodge City was noisy at night when the cattle herds arrived. These are tumultuous times in tennis. There may be time to restore some of tennis’s lost gentility when the boom levels off. For the moment there is a crop of superb young athletes playing world-class tennis at skill levels Major Wingf ield could never have dreamed of when he set up his first Sphairistiké set. Doubtless he would be surprised at the ferocity with which his game is played today. That was not what he had in mind at all. But he would have dearly loved the royalties.