By Joel Drucker Photographs by Josh Skinner
It was the early 1980s. The setting was Marin County, an affluent Northern California community. Faith, distracted by the disintegration of her marriage to George Dunlap, had forgotten that she’d arranged to have a tennis court built on her property. But there at her door was the hunky contractor, Frank Henderson. Inevitably, Faith and Frank commenced a romance. To celebrate the completion of Frank’s work, Faith held a party—at which point George drove his car through the court, completely destroying it. This happened in Shoot the Moon, a 1982 film starring Diane Keaton and Albert Finney as the estranged couple. What, by 1982, had tennis come to symbolize? Affluence? Indulgence? Anger? Only five years earlier, tennis had been the yenta in another film starring Keaton. In one of the decade’s signature works, 1977’s Annie Hall, Keaton had met her love interest Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) on a tennis court.
Woody Allen read the zeitgeist better than he read The New York Review of Books. In 1971, seven tennis tournaments aired on TV. Five years later, that figure was 70. A Harris survey taken mid-decade revealed that tennis’ popularity as a spectator sport was exceeded only by football, baseball, and basketball. Americans Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, and Arthur Ashe became crossover icons. Thoroughly in the mix were Australians Rod Laver, John Newcombe, and Evonne Goolagong; Sweden’s Bjorn Bjorg; and Romanian Ilie Nastase. Other supernovas burst later in the decade: pigtailed Tracy Austin, tempestuous John McEnroe, and an outspoken lefty who’d defected, Martina Navratilova.
This is the top-down view, an application of the Great Man-Woman School of History that fits a sport chock-full of skilled individuals. But also floating around America in the late ’60s and early ’70s were many tennis-friendly ideas: do-your-own-thing activism, participatory democracy, the fitness boom, the human potential and ecology movements, feminism and civil rights activism (Ashe’s simple presence revealed that tennis’ all-white dress code was about more than clothing). “There is a revolution coming,” wrote Charles Reich in the 1970 best-seller The Greening of America. “It will originate with the individual.” Angry at the lies of Vietnam and Watergate, dismayed by business, government, and cultural ambiguity, Americans retreated into themselves.
From Acoustic Garden
to Electric Jungle
Tennis blossomed as an authentic antiestablishment form of liberation. The sport, wrote Richard Schickel in his 1975 book, The World of Tennis, “suits our needs for intimacy within a structured, reassuringly predictable context…just as it limits the operation of blind chance, which increasingly seems to rule our lives.” In 1970, 10.3 million Americans defined themselves as tennis players. Four years later, that figure had soared to 33.9 million.
Fittingly, Jimmy Carter, the first man elected president after Richard Nixon’s resignation, was a tennis player. When Austin earned a major win during the ’77 US Open, Carter made a congratulatory phone call. From famed players in Washington and Hollywood to colorful clothes, sensual sweat suits, metal racquets, crowded public courts, tennis getaways, and hedonistic tennis-themed parties, the sport was a front-and-center component of a quintessential ’70s term: lifestyle.
Participation peaked in 1978 at 35 million. That was also the same year the US Open relocated from the patrician West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills to a new public facility, the USTA National Tennis Center. So long, acoustic garden party. Hello, electric jungle.
Backlash to the Boom
The barbarians had arrived at the gates. But now that a new castle had been built for its kings and queens, would the masses be welcome? As spectators, yes. As players, not quite. “America, over the top as usual, made [tennis] the fad activity of the age,” read one history of the game written in the late ’80s. “Equipment sales went through the roof and people who kept calling a rally a volley and couldn’t hit a backhand to save their lives were to be seen strutting down Main Street, USA in their Fila gear with their Arthur Ashe Head Competition racket slung over their shoulder.” Ouch.
The backlash even started during the boom years. Just about anyone who picked up the game in the ’70s will tell a tale of overcrowded courts and long waiting periods. Another turnoff: It was hard to find suitable opponents and enter a thriving tennis community. The culprit here was everything from snobbery to poorly run community tennis programs and lazy instructors.
Throughout the ’80s, the connective and distinct tissue that bonded a sport men and women could both play and watch had failed to be strengthened. “As an industry, we got very self-satisfied with all the momentum that was created in the ’70s and we indulged ourselves in the fiction that the key to driving player participation is developing and promoting top players,” said Ray Benton, former president of ProServ (clients included Ashe and Connors), who has been deeply involved with grassroots and professional tennis events for more than 40 years. “We ignored the fact that persuading someone to play and engage with tennis is a totally personal service activity.”
By 1994, when a Sports Illustrated cover story asked the question “Is Tennis Dying?” participation had shriveled to 22 million. But this likely meant not a whit to the increasingly well-rewarded pros. Connors had earned $38,000 for his ’78 US Open singles win. Fifteen years later, Pete Sampras’ New York payoff was $535,000. “A participant sport like tennis is driven from the grass roots up,” said Benton. “We got into a situation where we became satisfied with giving lessons to existing players and didn’t focus on growing participation. Like any other industry, we needed a continual flow of new customers to grow and replace dropouts.”
Why did they leave? After all, so much had made tennis attractive. It was sexy, a great way to get a tan and burn calories in those years before burned ozone layers and block-long fitness centers. There was the cool factor: the chance to mimic the icy elegance of Borg and Evert. There was fashion. Entrepreneurs were conducting business in warm-up suits, garments transformed from utilitarian gray and baggy cotton to velvety statements. And how fun to compete, be it the hand-to-hand combat of singles with a good friend or hated colleague, or the spectrum of doubles, whether in a competitive foursome with pals, a social game with business associates, or an innuendo-laced mixed match.
But as Vic Braden, the longstanding instructor who blossomed into a major TV personality during those boom years, often said, “Not only is tennis hard, but people see your legs.” If, for some, tennis was the great escape from tyrannical bosses and societal clutter, for others it required too much dedication. Learning to create a strike zone on the move was not easy. As a teaching pro once told me, “It takes three years just to become a crappy tennis player.” Tennis was no collective frolic. It was more like learning to play the piano—only with another pianist trying to twist your fingers. Consider the skills contrast with tennis’ country-club cousin, golf. A golfer hones technique and competes as a singular entity versus the course. But tennis’ interactive aspect put one’s skills sharply on display versus another. You played poorly because that other dude across the net made you do uncomfortable things.
In 1974, Jake Steinman started City Sports, a San Francisco-based publication that covered participatory sports, including extensive tennis coverage for a good deal of its first decade. But as Steinman recently told me, “You need to have grooved strokes, and you have to play a lot to do that. A lot of people got into tennis and never learned fundamentals. By the ’80s, baby boomers were growing into different activities that didn’t require partners—running, aerobics.”
Not only did those other forms of fitness require much less skill than tennis, they took less time. And by the late ’70s and early ’80s, as America’s economy plummeted and the double-income couple became more conventional than anomalous (hence taking a lot of women off the courts), the message of self-improvement altered. Best-sellers such as The Greening of America and 1974’s The Inner Game of Tennis had emphasized individual consciousness, what we might today call a process-oriented approach. A more outcome-focused book, written by Robert Ringer, featured a far less ethereal title: Looking Out for #1, and in 1977 became No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list. Two years later, Ringer authored Restoring the American Dream, which reached No. 3 on the Times’ list.
Ah, the American Dream—even that twines its way into the rise and decline of tennis. The ’70s had been a decade to question America, the tennis boom years coinciding with a collective indifference to jingoism. One virtue of tennis was that it transcended borders. American tennis crowds frequently and joyfully rooted for contenders from other countries, be it Spain, Argentina, Australia, Sweden, Romania, India. Thanks to Nixon’s spirit of détente, even the Cold War had simmered.
But events in the last half of 1979 reignited patriotism. On July 15, Carter gave a rather sober speech, citing a nationwide crisis in confidence, the need for lowered expectations, and a call for national sacrifice—what would be dubbed his “malaise” speech. Later that fall, 52 Americans were taken hostage in Iran. In December, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan reignited the Cold War.
The time had come to reassert American pride. Star-spangled depravity laid the groundwork for the “Miracle on Ice,” the American Olympic hockey team upsetting the Soviets in the 1980 Winter Games. That spring, Carter announced a boycott of the Summer Games scheduled to take place in Moscow. America once again had enemies, which meant it also needed advocates.
Tennis, alas, played a cameo role in Carter’s fate. In the 1980 presidential election, Ronald Reagan campaigned as a big-picture thinker, a contrast to Carter, so extensive a micromanager that he personally oversaw reservations on the White House tennis court. Here was America, going down the tubes, and the leader of the free world who’d told us to turn down our thermostats and botched the hostage rescue was busy determining which Cabinet members should round out Saturday’s foursome. Figures that a loser like Carter would play that stupid sport I tried to play a few years ago. Bunch of sissies and punks, I tell ya.
It also started to become clear in the early ’80s that big-time pro tennis had its own downside. A world-weary Borg lost the ’81 US Open final to McEnroe, skipped the awards ceremony—and never again played a Grand Slam tournament, announcing his retirement at the age of 26. Burnout also claimed another potential star, Andrea Jaeger. Injuries derailed Austin. McEnroe and even the sturdy Evert waxed about the challenges of such a lonely sport. A November 1982 Sports Illustrated story titled “The Glitter Is Gone” cited several teen prodigies who’d suffered mental breakdowns, often abetted by pushy parents. Michael Mewshaw’s 1983 book, Short Circuit, explored such dark factors as illegal appearance fees and nefarious umpires. For all the fans such hotheads as McEnroe and Connors drew to tennis, did they consider all the parents and sponsors they turned off? Tennis wasn’t just hard. It was dangerous, corrupt, rude.
And as the decade wore on, as Reagan’s “Morning in America” gave a sustainable answer to many millions who’d questioned the American Dream, as détente gave way to “The Evil Empire,” as Connors and McEnroe faded—neither reached a Grand Slam singles final after 1985—the absence of American greats also emerged as a reason for the game’s decline.
The lack of homegrown superstars was particularly vexing for the American tennis scene when Ivan Lendl, an austere Eastern European who early in his career wore black Darth Vadar-like shirts, toppled both Connors and McEnroe to win the 1985 US Open and became No. 1 in the world for the next three years. A rather xenophobic Sports Illustrated headline following Lendl’s 1986 US Open victory read, “The Champion That Nobody Cares About.” Never mind that both Lendl and his fellow ex-Czech Navratilova had renounced Eastern Europe and personified the American Dream in two significant ways: a relentless work ethic and the spirit of innovation in everything from fitness to nutrition to equipment.
The assumption that the key to growth lies in native-based star power is ambiguous at best. After all, in the ’90s, when American stars such as Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, and Michael Chang won Grand Slam titles, participation continued to drop. According to Benton, “While certainly having great Americans generates more media coverage, it’s difficult to find evidence that it will in turn generate new participants.”
Paranoid Solo Acts
So what was tennis to America? Prior to the boom, it appeared not American enough due to its spirit of elitism and exclusion. But maybe, as the boom revealed, tennis was too American, too filled with self-reliant individuals who felt superior because they’d attained personal mastery over something others hadn’t been able to even be plausible at. Tom Wolfe, in his iconic 1976 piece “The Me Decade,” covered the Erhard Seminar Training (or “est”)—which like tennis was a popular phenomena of the ’70s that emphasized self-reliance. “The trainer looked like a cocky little bastard,” Wolfe wrote, “up there on the podium with his deep tan, white tennis shirt.”
Schickel, a lifelong tennis lover with fond memories of pastoral days at Forest Hills, was dismayed to see the genteel tennis community ransacked by Connors, a man Schickel believed was as horrific a creature as the disgraced president who’d resigned the same summer that Connors had taken over the No. 1 ranking. Like Nixon, Schickel wrote, Connors “is a narrowly ambitious man, concentrating a furious energy on a single task—being a winner in his chosen field. To this end, he will sacrifice anything—the graceful presentation of self, the pursuit of pleasure…warming human relations. It accounts for that air of dark suspicion around him, his powerful feeling that everyone is out to make a fool out of him.” Damn the tennis and its paranoid solo acts.
Far better in the ’80s to channel one’s personal quest toward more practical matters such as revenue generation. A long decade after Annie Hall, Gordon Gekko, protagonist in an ’80s zeitgeist film, Wall Street, proclaimed that “Greed is good.” Meanwhile, as tennis slid off the marquee, basketball emerged as the sport of the ’80s, personified by that happy-go-lucky team player, Magic Johnson. Speaking once with John Lucas, an All-American in tennis who’d played in the NBA for 14 years, I asked him which sport was harder. His answer was instant. “Tennis. You can’t pass. You can’t blame your teammates. You’ve got to take the shot every time.” There followed a pause, at which point Lucas said, “But basketball makes you a better person because you learn to work with people.”
Perhaps tennis was unredeemable, shining too much white light on the self to make it fit for collective cultural consumption. As Peter Bodo wrote in his 1979 book, Inside Tennis, “tennis players do not make good heroes, because their sport is too individualistic and their independence too easily becomes egotism.” At the Western edge of the American Dream, close to the California coastline, George Dunlap had arrived in the form of Albert Finney, a native of tennis’ birthplace, Great Britain. A proxy of sorts for orderly Wimbledon, where everyone knows their place, Finney-Dunlap had come west to annihilate tennis as it asserted itself on the last frontier of the American republic. Perhaps it was for its own good, a Darwinistic purge or qualifying tournament of sorts. But for those who remain—the latest figures show nearly 18 million tennis players—the dream of an American tennis democracy endures.