This morning, and the three mornings prior, I woke up at 5 AM. I did not milk a single cow, nor did I drive a friend to the airport for an early flight. On Sunday, I made sure to set my clocks to Paris local time, where they’ll stay for the next two weeks. I’m not taking a trip to Paris, at least not in the literal sense, but I am crazy about a tournament that most people call the French Open. As a sleep-deprived honorary Frenchman, I’d rather call it Roland Garros, no matter how pretentious that may sound.
When I tell people I’m a tennis fan, it either results in my masculinity being questioned, or someone saying “yeah, Federer’s pretty cool I guess.” If I tell them that my favorite player is Michael Russell, a 36-year-old from Houston currently ranked 98th in the world, I’m greeted by odd facial contortions that signal unvoiced thoughts of “well, I see you use your time wisely.” Even the few tennis fans in my social circle haven’t reached the level of insanity required for detailed knowledge of Zimbabwe’s highest-ranked player (Takanyi Garanganga, world #292, and owner of tennis’ most mellifluous surname), so I often feel like I have to act as an ambassador for the sport. Yes, I explain to friends and family, they get two serves, and no, they don’t get two bounces.
Okay, so most people aren’t that clueless about tennis, and I’ve found a lot of casual sports fans are more proficient in professional tennis than one might expect. The reason tennis isn’t as popular in America as a comparable individual sport like golf has little to do with the fact that the scoring system is weird, the matches are too long, or the athletes are “soft” compared to those who play contact sports. In fact, few people worth bothering with even believe these things about tennis. The biggest reason the sport has drifted further toward the fringes in recent years is simple: American pros are falling behind.
Sure, you have Venus and Serena Williams, the latter of whom often seems like she’s playing an entirely different sport than the rest of her competitors (not during her shocking 6-2 6-2 loss against Garbine Muguruza earlier today), but they’ve been around since the mid-1990s. In the past fifteen years, no one has stepped up high enough to be mentioned alongside them, or even take their places when age takes its toll (which it’s been doing to Venus for several years). Andy Roddick was good; he won the 2003 US Open and held the world #1 ranking for a brief time. But American sports fans generally aren’t satisfied with good players. They want the kind of transcendent greatness that allows one to party with Kanye West and own an NFL team. Tennis stars of the past didn’t quite achieve the celebrity-style cultural prominence of the Williams Sisters, but Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Jim Courier, Pete Sampras, Chris Evert, Lindsay Davenport, and Jennifer Capriati all won multiple Grand Slam titles and enjoyed extended periods at the top of the sport. Agassi in particular, with his flair for drama and ostentatious hairpieces, had popular support that extended far beyond hardcore tennis fans. When Agassi played his final US Open in 2006, my uncle took a break from defending the Cowboys and trashing the Lakers and watched every single point of the American’s epic five-set victory over Marcos Baghdatis, a match that I still remember as my first prolonged exposure to tennis.
But are younger fans, who grew up in a world where globalization and diversity are encouraged, so sensitive to national allegiances? American tennis fans have found a lot to like about Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, but the two best players of the modern era haven’t broken through to those who care more about football and basketball. Neither is as beloved as Tiger Woods (even post sex scandal), despite the fact that they’ve reached similar levels of success. Yes, golf is somewhat more popular than tennis, and it would be easy to attribute Woods’ share of America’s affection to this fact.
But then there’s cycling. During his run of seven Tour de France titles, Armstrong brought ample attention to a sporting event that makes Wimbledon look like the Super Bowl in comparison. Now that he (and his fellow American Floyd Landis) are retired and disgraced, the Tour de France airs on The Fishing Channel or something, and most of us can’t name a professional cyclist. Alberto Contador might bring some nods of recognition, but most people mistakenly identify him as either a boxer, or the guy from Breaking Bad with the wheelchair and bell.
It’s tempting to ignore gray areas for the sake of a more straightforward and easier-to-write column, but I can’t pretend to know that the lack of Americans in tennis is the sole reason why it’s in the middle tier of our collective sporting consciousness. Lance Armstrong is American, sure, but he is also a cancer survivor, and has the looks and demeanor of the strapping math teacher all the divorced moms want to have parent-teacher conferences with. Pete Sampras retired as the most successful American male in history, but his stoic personality led some to label him as “boring,” especially when he was paired against Andre Agassi.
Most people like sports because they can see a bit of themselves in those people on TV who are so much more talented and successful than they are. When they pick a favorite team or player, they invest a bit of their self-worth in the success or failure of that entity. And it’s a bit easier to feel invested in someone who’s driven on the same roads as you, listened to the same music as you, and stared out the passenger’s side window at the same Cracker Barrel billboards as you. With the rise of globalized culture, it’s not as hard to share those common bonds with people like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, but that doesn’t erase the populace’s general skepticism toward European accents and long-haired men in pink shirts.
Whatever modern technology has done to obliterate national borders, flags are still displayed next to names on golf leaderboards and tennis draws. It’s easy for Manu Ginobili and Dirk Nowitzki (a huge tennis fan himself) to be judged by their team identities rather than their national identities, but tennis players are on their own. So until the United States gets its act together on the tennis court, I’ll be mostly alone in my appreciation of that Kazakh guy with four Zs in his name. He’s worth getting up at 5 AM for, for sure. I’ll let you take my word for it.