#Goals: Can the USA Become the No. 1 Tennis-Playing Nation in the World? | Sports Destination Management

#Goals: Can the USA Become the No. 1 Tennis-Playing Nation in the World?

May 10, 2024 | By: Mary Helen Sprecher

May brings National Tennis Month, according to the United States Tennis Association, with all the fanfare you’d expect. Except here’s a twist: Our friends at USTA have set an absolutely audacious goal: to have 10 percent of the U.S. population playing tennis by the year 2035 to make the U.S. the number one tennis-playing nation in the world.

And in case you’re not keeping count, that amounts to 35 million tennis players. (The number currently sits at 23.84 million, according to Statista.)

USTA announced its plan all the way back in early April, and the goal dovetails with USTA’s new mission statement: "Growing tennis to inspire healthier people and communities everywhere."

So is this possible or is it pie in the sky? Depends how you look at it.

Tennis exploded in popularity during the pandemic, growing 33 percent, including in minority populations. Because many health clubs were closed, individuals (including those who had not played tennis for years) blew the dust off their racquets (or ordered new racquets and balls online) and hit their local municipal courts.

All that is good news, and bodes well for the sport, but every goal has what is known as SWOT: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Here are a few of those.

Strengths: The profile of tennis is high. Tennis championships can reach the masses across a variety of channels, including broadcast TV, livestream and social. There is an active college population as well, thanks to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, and at the college club level, thanks to the USTA’s Tennis On Campus program.

The feeder system remains strong, with the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) finding that tennis remains in the top 10 of sports participation for both boys and girls. It’s also a great equalizer, with disciplines like Wheelchair Tennis, allowing able-bodied athletes to face off against those in wheelchairs.

Tennis also has incredible starpower, with players like Novak Djokovic and Coco Gauff, plus trailblazers like Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson. (Its players have never been short on buzz, either; decades before Lia Thomas, Renée Richards made headlines about a brand-new concept called gender identity by suing to play at the 1977 US Open after undergoing gender reassignment surgery.) And the sport has made it into who-knows-how-many movies, including this summer’s hot (and we do mean hot) film, “Challengers.”

Weaknesses: The USTA has noted that during the pandemic (and even afterwards), many people were bringing their friends to the courts, and that their friends tried their hands – but then gave up. Not what the USTA was hoping for, obviously.

However, to look at it in context, tennis is one of the more difficult sports in which to gain proficiency.

TopSpinPro notes, “ESPN published an in-depth analysis and concluded that tennis was the 7th most challenging sport when considering their list of factors which included things such as endurance, speed and power.”

It is downright hard, the site notes, to learn how to master the balance of striking the ball hard enough to get it across the net and past an opponent while still being able to keep it in bounds. Learning backhand and serve are also challenging, and the scoring and etiquette can confuse newbies. It’s a tough equation. Those who just want to wander out onto the court and hit can become self-conscious and discouraged – and go looking for more solitary pursuits.

Tennis Coach Singapore states, “One of the primary reasons people consider tennis a difficult sport is because the learning curve is steeper than in other sports. Unlike running or badminton, for example, where you can just get up and start doing it, tennis requires specific techniques and skills.”

“Of the people who pick up a racquet and try tennis, not everyone will stick with the sport,” says an article in Forbes. “Tennis is not like eating avocado toast, where everyone who tries it once automatically gets hooked. It can take time to get skilled enough to really start enjoying the sport.”

#Goals: Can USA Become the No. 1 Tennis-Playing Nation in the World?(We missed the memo that listed avocado toast as an addictive substance, but okay.)

USTA officials think it comes down to two things. The first is a lack of coaching (including instructional programs with skilled teaching pros).

“Too often,” stated USTA officials, “players simply don’t have easy access to programs that meet their needs, coaches who can guide their growth, or facilities that make it possible for them to get on the court and emulate their favorite pros.”

According to Forbes, “There aren’t yet enough good quality coaches either to help the U.S. reach the 10 percent goal or even meet current player demand. At this moment, the U.S. has around 24,000 SafePlay-approved tennis coaches, a number that the USTA hopes to push above 80,000 before 2035. This will mean expanding existing training programs and establishing more extensive and sustainable career paths for those who want to make coaching their profession.”

The second is a lack of facilities and in many cases, playable facilities. Because many courts are programmed for leagues and lessons, casual players looking for a pick-up game may have to wait for an available court – not something that appeals to those with limited time. Additionally, public courts for open play are in relatively short supply, given the current playing population, USTA’s goals – and those who want to use the courts for other purposes like pickleball (more on that in a minute).

Opportunities: The USTA is tackling the challenge head-on with a new strategy aimed at continuing the sport's uptake and better retaining existing players. It intends to do so by supporting local communities and providing options for tennis formats, equipment and programs that enable players coming to the game to become players for life.

The USTA states its program includes “the roll-out of a portfolio of competitive and casual play programs that meet the needs of every age and interest, from young to old, cardio to competitive, and beyond.”

An essential ingredient in increased player participation is more courts and more available playable hours on those courts. The USTA “plans to deepen its partnership with local governments, parks and recreation facilities, school boards and local clubs to build, renovate and protect tennis facilities across the country, while also seeking to maximize existing infrastructure through enhancements that will extend playable hours and lengthen the tennis season.

The goal is to ensure there are 350,000 courts (including both traditional and non-traditional playing spaces)—one for every 100 players—available to help catalyze play in local communities, with a particular focus on underserved areas. As part of this effort, the USTA will support facility operators with the tools they need to run effective, efficient and profitable operations, including programming, technology, data intelligence, coaches and equipment.”

The USTA has a Facilities Services Program, responsible for everything from venue assessments to funding, as well as a range of other forms of assistance to owners and operators of existing facilities, or facilities in the planning stages.

Threats: Pickleball is one elephant in the room here. With a sharply rising population of players gravitating to its smaller courts and social vibe, pickleball is picking up not only former tennis players but those in the sweet spot for tennis: People who like healthy competition in a sport that helps them make use of their hand/eye coordination. Pickleball has a reputation as a social sport as well and is welcoming to first-time players.

And like tennis, pickleball is short on courts; in fact, its growth is outpacing its court supply. This has led to considerable friction as parks, clubs and others try to manage keeping two player populations happy.

#Goals: Can USA Become the No. 1 Tennis-Playing Nation in the World?In 2023, the USTA released its Guidance on Shared Spaces, in an attempt to help entities avoid conflicts. The guidance provided three choices: (1) Build separate spaces for each sport; (2) use non-traditional spaces for pickleball (parking lots, gyms, etc.) and (3) when all else fails, have shared use of facilities. But Option 3 has the potential to create the Hatfields vs. McCoys scenario both sports (and all venues) are trying to avoid.

Another problem is the need to bring more children into the sport at a younger age; many parents are putting their preschool-age children into mainstream team sports like soccer, baseball and softball, and keeping them in those programs as they age – often, hoping that, in years to come, they will become good enough to gain a scholarship to college. (Many times, children begin taking tennis lessons because their parents already play; others may take lessons if a friend is doing so and appears to be having a good time.)

So whether the USTA’s big goal is achievable… well, only time will tell. What could help it, says Lew Sherr, the USTA’s Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director, is reframing tennis as a whole.

To reach the 10 percent participation goal, Sherr told Forbes reporters, he doesn’t think that the USTA needs to focus as heavily as it has in the past on increasing awareness of what the USTA has called the healthiest sport in the world. Instead, he indicated that the focus should be on “Making sure that we can deliver better experiences to keep people in the game.” 

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