At this year’s U.S. Open, Andy Murray won the men’s draw in a five set thriller over Novak Djokovic, one of the most electric athletes the sport of tennis has ever seen. Murray’s victory was the first Grand Slam win of his career and the first for a citizen of the United Kingdom in an astounding 79 years.
One day earlier, on the women’s side, American Serena Williams captured the fourth U.S. Open title and 15th Grand Slam of her career, arguably solidifying her place as the greatest female American tennis player of all time.
Amidst all this drama, the women’s final garnered a Nielsen’s TV Rating of just 3.9. This score undoubtedly benefited from the fact that Williams is American, as the men’s final (which featured a Scot and a Serb) experienced a paltry rating of 2.6 — the second lowest in U.S. Open history.
Contrast this with the Sept. 24 Monday Night Football game between Green Bay and Seattle, which earned a rating of 12.0. That made it the third most viewed cable television program of the year, behind only — go figure — the 2012 BCS National Championship game and the Rose Bowl.
Needless to say, this does not bode well for tennis fans in the U.S., and improvement doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.
When she’s healthy, Serena is easily the most dominant player in the women’s game, but she is 31 years old and might not have too many explosive years left. Once she retires, the talent in the women’s draw will drop off sharply, as will the popularity boost due to having an American in the upper-echelon of the sport. Unless a new U.S. star emerges soon, the women’s game could be poised for all time lows in the ratings.
The men’s game, on the other hand, is facing an entirely different quandary. The era of the great American tennis player is already over — long retired are John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Pete Sampras. The sport as a whole, however, has been as fun, exciting and historically significant as ever in recent years, and this trend is poised to continue. Interesting storylines abound in the coming Grand Slam season: Does Federer have enough left in the tank to make one more run at a major? How will Nadal look coming back from injury? Will Djokovic return to the dominant form we saw from him last year? Is Murray a bona fide threat to win more Grand Slams?
On the whole, men’s tennis is currently a sport that boasts true parody, as well as all-time great talent at the top of the draw. Sadly, without an American in the running for a slam, it seems that many viewers would rather devote their time to football, basketball or baseball — sports in which their idols are much more likely to have been born and raised in the states.
The United States Tennis Association (USTA) has been working to increase the popularity of tennis in the U.S., including one brilliant campaign to build smaller courts and racquets to make the game more fun for kids. But they’re up against a vicious cycle; great American players build popularity for the sport, but the sport itself needs to be popular if future tennis stars are to even pick up a racquet.
Let’s not let tennis go the way of boxing. When the Australian Open rolls around in January, try to put aside your nationalism and adopt a sport with a more cosmopolitan group of superstars. Who knows? You just might find it to be a refreshing change of pace.
Fleming is a member of the class of 2013.