For a brief moment, tennis will be visible in America. Labor Day weekend is traditionally the most popular time at the U.S. Open. And the U.S. Open is the tournament that draws the most fans. So this weekend is the epicenter of tennis. And the sport is doing great. Roger Federer is making history, the Williams sisters are making their umpteenth comebacks, a new mini-season of events leading up to the Open is doing well on television and innovations, like player challenges of calls, have shown the sport isn't resting on its laurels.
But in fact, tennis as a sport is a joke. On any given week, golfers compete for a million dollar purse, an amount tennis stars only see four times a year at the Grand Slams. TV ratings go up and down year to year but the majors like Wimbledon and the French Open can barely compete with a regular season matchup between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees on ESPN. And a new wave of stars have arrived...from Serbia.
Given its popularity as a sport -- millions play every week and unlike golf it's very inexpensive to play and unlike baseball or basketball or soccer and most other sports you only need one other person to play with -- tennis is nowhere near as popular as it should be.
That's the bad news. The good news is that everyone knows what needs to be done to fix tennis. They just haven't done it yet. It's going to take a major figure like Billie Jean King being given real power and about five years or so to re-align the entire sport. But if they do it, tennis will explode in excitement. Here's the to-do list:
1. Get a commissioner - Tennis needs someone in charge, just like every other sport.
2. Combine the men's and women's tour - It's better for fans, creates better events and provides much bigger draws. Separating them by gender is outdated, silly and spoils one of the pleasures of the sport: that men and women can both easily provide top-notch entertainment.
3. Move the Australian Open - Everyone knows it has to be done. The Aussie Open takes place during the punishing heat of summer. It needs to be moved to October and be the final Slam of the season. (Stop whining, U.S. Open. If it's better for the sport, ultimately it's better for you.)
4. Shorten the season - Top players are forced to play certain events to protect their points. Many athletes are plagued with injuries and careers are drastically shortened because tennis has an absurd schedule with barely four weeks off a year. You can keep off-season events for minor players who need the money. The season will end in November with the traditional mini-tournament of the top eight men and women players. So players will have December to February off and start up again in mid or late March. Or even April!
5. Reduce the number of tournaments - Right now, players often play a final on Sunday and have to start a new tournament on Monday. For various reasons, this means the winner of one tournament immediately bows out of the next one by default and paying a penalty (if they can afford it) or simply being too exhausted to get past the first round. This hurts everyone.
6. Have mini-seasons on each surface - The hardcourt season leading up to the U.S. Open has been a big success. Suddenly, fans know there will be tennis on TV regularly and it actually makes sense -- oh, players gain points and get ready for the U.S. Open and can win bonus money there the more points they gain beforehand. Do this for all the majors. A clay season leading up to the French, a grass season leading up to Wimbledon, a hardcourt season leading up to the U.S. Open and if we must have indoor tennis, an indoor/hardcourt season leading up to the Aussie Open. Tennis is an international sport and if you want to celebrate one of its unique features -- the fact that it's played on three very different surfaces -- then do it right. (I'd also toss in a tournament with wooden rackets, but that should be an exhibition match, I suppose.)
7. Get those cameras on every line at every major as soon as possible - The player challenges to calls have proven a huge plus. Not only does it reduce terrible errors (which are inevitable with humans in charge), but it's also reduced complaining and whining from the players. They don't moan about certain calls, they just challenge them. It's reduced arguing and increased respect all around.
8. Revisit medical time-outs - As proven in the epic James Blake-Fabrice Santoro five-setter Thursday night, the medical time-out is being wildly abused and has turned into a de facto time-out, something tennis doesn't need since players get to rest every other game.
9. Treat the Davis Cup like the All-Star break - turn this tournament between the top players of each country into a real event that takes place every two years (or three years or four years) and plop it into the middle of the season. It's tremendously valuable for the worldwide growth of the game and U.S. fans will support a little jingoism if given a chance. Right now, 99 percent of the U.S. fans haven't a clue when Davis Cup is played.
10. Tear down Arthur Ashe Stadium - It's not just the worst tennis stadium, it may well be the worst sports stadium built in years. Most of the seats are in the upper section and they're so high up it's literally impossible to follow a match. That's why the fans are so noisy at the U.S. Open -- they're bored out of their minds. It's so cavernous that it's literally a joke -- people sitting there wonder if clouds will obscure their view. Even the lower levels for the fat cats are poorly designed, with concrete expanses so wide that the seats look half empty even when people are in them. They didn't even bother to think about a retractable roof and design Arthur Ashe so one could be added later -- if they chose -- for a reasonable amount of money. Tear it down and start again. It's an insult to the great player that the stadium was named after.