Is Tennis a Dying Sport?

Tennis has been on the sports scene since the first serve in the sixteenth century. Even before that, rumours of monks playing a hybrid of handball and tennis among the cloisters have been around. Ever since the sport was founded, the popularity for tennis have increased exponentially throughout the years.

However, there are arguments to be made that tennis actually is starting to decrease in overall popularity. Is tennis really a dying sport? This is what’s changed the last couple of years and why less people are intrigued by the sport.

What Has Changed for Tennis?

Tennis is played everywhere in the world, from Argentina to Zambia and from Guam and the Antarctic, but in recent years some commentators have noticed a decline in interest.

The crop of new rising stars in Europe and North America has become a little lean. Compared to the feverish attention paid to tennis stars in the 1970s, the public often follows tennis stars less slavishly now.

That might be a relief for established tennis pros in search of a peaceful life off the court. It also means less visibility for the sport, unfortunately. Less air time on important networks and fewer opportunities to attract new talent.

What Did the Golden Age Look Like?

When the Open Era began in the United Kingdom in 1968, the gates were thrown open to allow skilled amateurs to test their mettle against professional players who had come up through the club circuit. What followed was a period of rapid acceleration for high-level tennis with a rocketing profile among the public.

With greats like Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver and Ivan Lendl racking up Grand Slam titles left right and centre, there was everything to play for as the seventies and eighties unfolded.

Crucially, there was also everything to watch. Fans at home were aware of the personas of the players, their looks, their vocalisations, their real or imagined rivalries. Tennis became drama, writ large on a green court.

The drama only intensified with the introduction of female professional players. Women had technically been on the scene since at least 1926 when champions Suzanne Lenglen and Mary Browne locked racquets in a three-match runoff.

The women who started to make headlines on the court in the early seventies were a breath of fresh air though. Billie Jean King and Francoise Durr had little girls all over the world pinning up their pictures and hoping to be just like them.

The tennis was hot and with such big stars, the gossip and the fashion were getting hotter. Casual fans found tennis more and more intriguing.

Visibility: Make or Break?

So, Is the decline in tennis broadcasting and the reduced uptake of college-level tennis down to a visibility problem? If it is, does that mean that tennis as we once knew it is dying?

It is sensible for any fan or player to be asking this question. After all, there are parts of the Open Era media gaze that would be almost impossible to replicate today. Tennis stars today cannot be out late, at boundary – pushing clubs rubbing shoulders with edgy musicians and dabbling in drink and drugs.

These kinds of rumours were part of what fuelled the intrigue about the players of the 1970s and 1980s, whether they were true or not. What mattered was that they were believable enough to fuel some good speculation.

Sports stars today live lives that are significantly more squeaky clean. Their training schedules wouldn’t accommodate the kind of heavy nights that some players were known for. Players sponsors would not allow for any dabbling and their personal lives typically do not welcome drama. Even getting emotional in a press conference is kept tightly controlled to keep lucrative sponsors on board with rising stars.

This shift to a more wholesome image means that the scandal and shocks of the past are unlikely to return to modern tennis. Don’t be too quick to assume that this means that sports stars need to become socially irrelevant.

Where soccer players were once famous for falling out of nightclubs and other scandals, these days we are seeing a new mould emerge. With stars like Marcus Rashford taking an interest in social issues and making their views known on political issues and even managers like Jurgen Klopp weighing in on current affairs, there is more than one way to get people talking about you.

Young tennis stars and their managers should be keeping one eye on this development. Tennis is in a potent position to represent a broad cross-section of society and throw off the last echoes of an outdated elitist image.

Tennis stars can lean in and become role models in a way that doesn’t risk their physical prowess and is true to the values they would like to promote as a way to become part of the national conversation. If a person who has never followed a soccer match can talk about a soccer player because of their activism or advocacy, why not a tennis star?

Billie Jean King did just that in the past. Perhaps progress and an ability to move with the times is part of the core of tennis?

Is It Really Over?

The picture shows “Tennis” Google searches over time.

Before we try to carry out a post mortem on our beloved sport though, we should consider whether it really is dying. In the USA and the United Kingdom, web searches about tennis, coverage on tennis and mid-level tennis tournaments are running at a reduced level.

If you pan out a little though, you might notice that in India, China, Japan and Australia that interest is holding strong and growing.

With these economies growing and their people and media becoming more visible on the world stage, tennis may become more visible without our domestic players needing to drive that profile. With a global pivot towards Asia and strong long term growth forecasts in Australia, Tennis could be on the rise.

What Does the Future Hold?

Tennis certainly faces challenges, in parts of Europe and North America, it will need more attention and more airtime.

However, with its enduring worldwide profile and a strong following in global growth areas, I wouldn’t be too quick to throw out your racquet if I were you.

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