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Is Roger Federer Hurting Tennis At My Club?

by Ed Shanaphy, Director of Tennis

Roger has just won his 20th Grand Slam singles title. Unreal. He’s perhaps the greatest singles player to ever walk on our planet. The accolades are sincere and worthy and it is a pleasure to watch his grace, athletism, and sportsmanship. He is a wonderful role model for younger players. But is he hurting the sport of tennis?

Roger’s entire career was focused and devised with the goal of winning and doing it wisely. He played fewer tournaments than most and, therefore, had fewer ranking points to defend to keep his number one or two spot in the world. Playing fewer tournaments often allowed him to be  healthier than his opponents over the two week fortnight of a slam. He arrived at most of his finals “fresh as a daisy” and having played fewer tournaments in the lead up to the slam, his legs were strong, sturdy and ready. His playing less over the years has allowed his longevity – he was always in it for the long haul and now his strategy is reaping its well-deserved reward.

His marketing and his brand awareness in the industry and media are second to none in all of sport. He’s a world icon leading tennis to new viewership and rating heights. He is an ambassador for our sport, and sport in general, to the world. I really like Roger. But is he hurting the sport of tennis?

Tennis faces many challenges, both new and old. Tennis has moved past the quiet halls of pretigious clubs and into the forefront of national television and “big money” sport. But there are new challenges. These past few years have seen Pickleball take off across the nation. In my hometown of Vero Beach, FL, we’ve seen the changeover of several park and recreation tennis courts to Pickleball. We’ve seen Padel rising up from a grass-roots level in Europe, with last month seeing the International Padel Days Conference in Madrid, Spain. The USPTA now offers a Padel certification. Pop Tennis is a craze in Europe and gaining strength here in the USA. Where will tennis fit in with all these new and vibrant variants?

As a Director of Tennis and having taught the gamut of students in the industry and looking at the tennis industry as a whole, I have one question that keeps recurring: Where else do all those that play a game revere an idol like Roger Federer who plays a different game? By this I mean, I have rarely taught a singles clinic. I rarely teach the heartiest fans of Roger – the men, but mostly, women who set their alarms for 3.30am this past week so as not to miss a point of one of his matches down under – singles. They all play doubles. They rarely, if ever, play singles. Yet, they are Federer’s biggest fans. I am left trying to find a similar situation in other sports.

I once read an essay by William S. Baring Gould about Sherlock Holmes and why a fictional character could have such a fantastic and worldly following as Sherlock. The essay attributed the fame of the greatest consulting detective to the reader actually putting himself or herself in the story. It was the reader who was actually sitting at the fireplace across from Watson. It was the reader who fell in love with Irene Adler. It was the reader who strolled across Whitehall to help solve the government’s issues of the days with treasonous spies.

Roger Federer career statistics
Career finals
Discipline Type Won
Singles Total 96
Doubles Grand Slam tournaments
Year-End Championships

I believe with the NFL, we do think of ourselves in a way of “making that play” with hands outstretched and two feet still inside the green. My daughter and I recreate it all the time in the backyard. Perhaps the juniors of today, who do play singles, do put themselves in Roger’s shoes and hold up the trophy in their minds as I did when I watched Laver and Connors. But ladies who play USTA doubles seem to be even bigger fans than the young guns I teach. It’s difficult to reconcile this fact.

Most of us can’t put ourselves in Roger’s storyline – most of us don’t play singles. With this said, Roger has possibly hurt doubles, and doubles is the game most of us USTA registered players play. Gone are the days when we waited to see John McEnroe come back out for an encore presentation playing doubles with Peter Fleming. Gone are the matches in which Martina Navratilova, having just won the singles championship the previous day, had to come back and play mixed doubles. We loved watching Stan Smith and Bob Lutz come back for more after playing their singles. Not too long ago, we had second chances to see Serena playing with her sister Venus long after they had both lost in the singles. Proof is in the pudding: The most watched match of the Laver Cup was when Roger and Rafa Nadal played doubles – was it the first time most of us had seen Roger play doubles? It was for me.

I am left wondering if Roger is really hurting tennis. We can’t see him do what we do when we hit a cross court lob over two players or open the middle with a dipping topspin winner between the two, clashing racquets of our opponents. He doesn’t play the same game – doubles. We spend hours on court talking doubles strategy with perhaps 95% of our lessons and clinics, and yet we turn on the television with reckless abandon at 3.30am to watch Roger play singles, a game we rarely teach to our students. We teach that one doesn’t really need a big serve in doubles, and yet we tune it to see Cilic and Federer ace it out.

Our challenge is to make Roger relevant to what we do at our clubs and parks and at the recreational level across all demographics. If we don’t accept this challenge as teachers and industry leaders, we will possibly soon see Pickleball courts replacing even more tennis courts in our public and private parks and clubs. Padel will be the new immigrant across our borders – no green card needed for a sport. No chain migration legislation can end a sport’s immigration to our shores.

Roger is a fantastic role model and that helps, but I worry that he’s making the game of doubles almost irrelevant to most of us and, in fact, might be hurting tennis down the road. I hope that those teachers and instructors, far wiser than I, find a way to make Roger relevant to all of us, and find ways to increase participation in the games of singles and doubles and, hence, grow participation in the sport of tennis.

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The Data Beyond The Baselines

Tennis, once again, is a growing sport in the USA. With an All-American female final last month at the U.S. Open between Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, American tennis is at an exciting, yet pivotal point. There are two distinct tracks taking place and it’s important to note each one and the statistical trends that are occurring.

At the grassroots level, the USTA is looking at bringing the game to the masses. With its new National Campus in Lake Nona holding national tournament finals at all levels and ages. The USTA’s work at the grass roots levels with L9 tournaments all the way to Tennis on Campus at the college age shows that the USTA is trying to bring tennis to new players at all ages and levels. That said, tennis participation is up just 1% in 2017, according to the Tennis Industry Association and the core number of players is contracting slightly as the median age is rising. The USTA is winning slowly with the junior participation levels but there are limitations. With tennis being restricted not only by the number of public courts, tennis is a sport that requires initial technical instruction early on. Growing participation is not an easy task for the USTA.

But, that leaves an opportunity for us at the Club level, where we can work individually with juniors and pass them along to the upper ranks and prepare them for tournaments and beyond. In order to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity at the club level to move juniors into a position to play in high school, college, and beyond – it’s imperative that we hire the right instructors and have a handle of the wonderful new programming that is out there. This can only happen if you understand the industry across the the club and public environments.

The position of tennis instructor has been for years a vague one. It’s oftentimes a stop-gap for a player who didn’t make the tour. This doesn’t mean he or she is a good instructor. We see more often than not, great players are not good instructors. We do see that instructors do not always have to be great players. And, what has been the bane of existence for our industry is that we push along a great coach and instructor into a Director’s role, which is a managerial role rather an on-court role at most clubs.

But with more stringent examinations and internships for certification and continuing education being offered by the USPTA and USPTR, the industry is slowly realizing that the key component of increasing the tennis industry and coddling great players to move them along the routes to success. We are slowly learning that a great coach or instructor should stay just that and not become a manager. Management is very different from being on-court and should be viewed as such.

As we consult with third-party institutions and clubs, we are able to collect data from numerous sources across our industry: from country clubs, tennis clubs to home owner and properety associations offering tennis amenities. Armed with this data, we have a singular and special viewpoint of the tennis industry based on data available only to us at Beyond The Baselines.

Consulting with and advising club boards and tennis committees, we bring a new dynamic to the table.  Sharing the data that we have derived from our industry, we can help create not only a fantastic tennis department at the club level, but also enrich the programming and employment opportunities. Gleaning what we have learned from our experiences and bringing actual live data with us to the table, we can bring a whole new viewpoint to any board or committee discussion and move tennis programming in the right direction to the benefit of the club and facility as a whole.