Original publication was
in the June 22, 2004 Tennis Week magazine
Values Worth Valuing
By Tm Bauer
Tennis struggles for popularity
because it demands many of the same values we are losing in society. Don’t agree? Try this exercise: Imagine a day through
the eyes of a 14-year-old, a potentially new tennis player. How would tennis fit your world?
Jump on the couch after your
phys ed-free day in our “non-competitive educational system;” watch some “unreality” TV, flooded with
ads for fast food, cars, beer, diets, pain killers and a host of pharmaceutical aids; or click to MTV, watching scenes change
by the millisecond, custom fit for the small attention span. Bored? Plug in a video game and transform into a street-fighter,
a rap star or even an ATP tennis player, who effortlessly attains world class status. Restart the game any time the result
doesn’t suit you. Want companionship? Just flip open your cell phone or jump online to chat using “instant messenger.”
Should you shop at the mall or online? Tough decisions. Just grab that credit card and go.
Industry entices this “Me”
Generation with conscience-free instant gratification, as values disappear. Many in the tennis industry respond to this by
marketing tennis right along these very themes, losing traditional supporters and hurting the integrity of the game. Notice
the ATP commercials and the way its stars are portrayed. Who looks like a gangster? Who is a rebel? Collars and sleeves must
surely go; show off those tattoos. How much more attention do WTA Tour players get when they trade the red clay of Roland
Garros for the red carpet of Hollywood? In the name of sales, we trade sportsmanship for “excitement.” Through
TV, our strongest link to this new generation, we glorify players “expressing themselves” by yelling obscenities
at officials and angrily tossing their racquets without consequences during each segment before commercial. Indeed those very
same segments used to show a replay of a great backhand that we once learned from. The ATP even considers playing tie-breaks
at 4-4 to hold on to shrinking attention spans of TV viewers. As ESPN’s Cliff Drysdale remarks, “Anything that
shortens matches is good for TV.” Why do we twist tennis into something it’s not? For viewership? What choices
are good for tennis in the long run?
I see the harmful results
of this “sell-out” marketing approach every day, as players imitate and exaggerate what they see on TV. The girls’
USTA junior tennis scene resembles the world of the “child beauty pageant” more each day. In boys’ USTA
junior play, I notice terrible sportsmanship, poor language, cocky attitudes and plenty of racquet abuse. Both the boys and
girls too often share a general lack of emotional control, exhibiting thoughtlessness and impatience in matchplay as well
as laziness in practice.
This “Fast Food Tennis”
is damaging a sport known for its class, integrity and intellectual demands. Among the casualties are coaches and even USTA
officials tired of dealing with such player drama. We should each do our part to change these trends by showing youth “what
is in it for them.” Tennis is not only a beautiful sport with a long history, but a wonderful teaching tool. Successful
tennis requires skill, honor, competitive spirit and total concentration. Harry Hopman said it best: “Tennis is a game
of control and restraint.” Just imagine a new player struggling with the service grip for the first time; nothing is
instant. One must be persistent in learning skills. Tennis rewards those willing to work at solving problems, those who patiently
overcome difficulties and invest for the long term with self-confidence and optimism. Tennis teaches us to improve ourselves,
to get to know our own strengths and weaknesses, and to enjoy the highs and lows along the long journey of constant improvement.
Singles places accountability
on the athlete more directly than almost any other sport or job. In doubles we find a perfect vehicle for teaching teamwork
and communication, ideal for a society struggling with interpersonal relationships. When we compete in tennis, we learn quick
decision-making skills. We must face trial by fire, summoning grace under pressure to win. When unsuccessful, we find no one
to blame our losses on, no refuge but the practice court. We compete using an honor system, often calling our own lines and
keeping things fair amid the toughest competition. Each match ending, not when TV time runs out, but when a winner emerges.
Tennis needs more people
promoting and protecting its positives. We should teach, reward and pursue these values, not merely rankings, scholarships
and money. To say that this generation is not capable of (or interested in) these values of sportsmanship, work ethic, honesty
and concentration is selling them very short indeed — and certainly taking the easy way out.
Everyone can play a role
in promoting values. We must not shirk this responsibility because it may be difficult or make us unpopular. Coaches must
hold players to high standards of effort, fitness and sportsmanship, encouraging them to grow and mature. Our tennis clubs,
tournament directors and USTA officials can also contribute by simply promoting these positive values and enforcing the code
of conduct. Most importantly, parents can make tennis available to their children for its lifetime of benefits, letting them
make their own way and ensuring that their children represent themselves with class. Tennis should be used to bring out the
best in all of us, helping us prepare “to meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same.”
Tim Bauer, head women’s
tennis coach at Michigan State University,
has coached on both the ATP and WTA tours and serves as a consultant in Sport Psychology to elite athletes in several sports.