Tennis is one of the oldest of the modern ball sports, and its lineage can be traced back to palm-ball games played in the 12th century. Modern tennis, as we know it, has been played in essentially the same format for well over a century with few rule changes. Even baseball and cricket, two similarly-styled games with centuries of history behind them, have seen more rule changes than tennis in the past hundred years.
That doesn’t mean we haven’t seen any innovations. Modern composite rackets are clearly different in both material and handling than the wood rackets that were used for decades, and electronic tracking systems now provide greater accuracy for scorekeeping and line calls than were previously possible with the naked eye of an umpire or referee.
Yet the public perception of tennis is still that of a hidebound, tradition-steeped sport where everything from uniform standards to noise levels is maintained as it has been for decades out of respect to the past. We see the drawbacks of excessive adherence to tradition across the sporting world. However, an overreliance on tradition has particularly affected tennis, which has seen overall participation flatline in the United States in recent years even as baseball — another tradition-steeped sport — has seen participation grow by notable levels over the past decade.
How can we reverse this problem? Admitting that we have a problem would be a great first step.
Let’s revisit the example of baseball. Of the “big four” sports in the United States, baseball is universally seen as the most traditional, and yet it’s enjoyed growth in both its casual and more active player bases over the past five years. One major reason for this recent growth is the “Play Ball” initiative launched in 2015, which encouraged people to play baseball in non-traditional ways — that is, without needing nine players on each team, and not need to run through all the rules of a standard baseball game.
There’s absolutely no reason why tennis can’t capitalize on similar efforts. At its most basic level, tennis requires only one person, one racket, and one ball. Tennis can be played competitively, for fun, or simply to engage in aerobic exercise. The latter category, also defined as “cardio tennis,” is one of the recent bright spots in this year’s tennis participation study by the Physical Activity Council, which found a 4.5% increase in the cardio tennis player base.
Unfortunately, core tennis players — our industry’s bread and butter — are turning out in fewer numbers and less frequently. There were 3.5% fewer core tennis players in 2017 than there was a year before, and this drop in the player base resulted in a 6.6% reduction in overall tennis playing sessions.
We should learn from the initiatives put forth in other sports and make efforts to present tennis as a modern, exciting athletic endeavor that can be enjoyed by anyone. Our sport can and should grow and thrive in a world where time is always short and teammates are often hard to find. One person, one racket, and one ball. That’s all it takes to get started!