Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

Tennis Falls on Hard Times in the U.S.

Commentator Frank Deford finds it hard to believe that no American tennis players are left at Wimbledon going into the final rounds. He offers some explanations, and a lamentation for the state of the American game.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

In tennis, there are no Americans left at Wimbledon this year in neither women's nor men's competition. Commentator Frank Deford is discouraged.

FRANK DEFORD reporting:

In 1882, when Australia defeated England at cricket, a London newspaper ran this obituary: In affectionate remembrance of English cricket, which died on August 29, deeply lamented. R.I.P. The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.

Later, in Melbourne, the English team was presented with an urn containing the burnt remains of part of a wicket. These are still called the ashes.

It may be difficult to set modern synthetic tennis rackets ablaze, but we might as well, for: In affectionate remembrance of American tennis, which died in 2006, deeply lamented. R.I.P.

Yes, American tennis is in ashes. As Americans, men and women disappeared at Wimbledon, while so many Europeans shone. It seemed as if a soccer tournament had broken out at the tennis championships.

Neither is there any hope on the horizon. There's no bright new generation of young American players ready to step up. More significant, this is really the first time that we've ever had a sport that we care about fall from our dominion.

Not to be melodramatic, but when historians look back on the decline and fall of the American empire, they can say, well, the first crack in the edifice took place when the sons and daughters of Uncle Sam could no longer beat the world at tennis.

There are murky reasons to account for this. American tennis stars have invariably been home-coached. Father or mother is a tennis aficionado who teaches the child. Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe may well be the last significant players who learned the game away from home, and they grew up in the 1950s.

Logically, we could have expected that when tennis went professional, it would have attracted more players from modest, non-tennis homes, but it hasn't worked out that way.

The blossoming of girls team sports has probably drained female talent from tennis. Would Billie Jean King have become a softball player if she'd grown up under Title IX? A good chance.

Apart from soccer, team sports are not as popular abroad. So, in both Europe and Asia, more good athletic boys and girls start with tennis.

Finally, American tennis is traditionally drawn from the same constituency as golf. And now, golf is sexy. Almost all American golfers, like tennis players, learn the game in-family. But nowadays, Americans marry later and have children later still.

Older parents are more liable to be golfers and thus more and more parents will take their children out to the course instead of the courts. Tennis is so physically demanding. Come on, son, let's go out to the range and hit a bucket!

For decades now, the English have put on the grandest world tennis championship for people from other nations to win. Now, that's the United States, too. We're still a great place to sit and watch tennis; only sorry we no longer have anybody who can actually play it very well.

NEARY: The comments of Frank Deford, senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated. He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford