The Racket Numbers

With tennis's popularity in a decadelong slump, the country-club set pins its hopes on the city

The impressive growth of the program has come as tennis's larger fortunes went into a decadelong swoon. According to American Sports Data Inc., a New Jersey-based market-research firm, participation in tennis among Americans peaked in the mid-Seventies, when more than 30 million people played at least once a year. That figure has since dropped to about 17 million--which places tennis behind the perennial leader, bowling (50 million people), as well as basketball (42 million), golf (30 million), softball (19 million), even darts (21 million).

Explanations for the decline abound. "I think the tennis industry kind of sat on their laurels during the boom years," says Jim Larson, a sports sociologist at the University of Minnesota. "But it really was a combination of factors. Some of it is driven by the athletes at the highest level. The game has lost some of its most entertaining and controversial performers--players like McEnroe, Borg, and Connors. There's nothing like that now. It has also evolved into more of a power-serve game. I think most people would rather watch longer rallies." Tennis, Larson adds, has lost a lot of its fans, and hobby players, to golf--a sport that has benefited from savvy, aggressive marketing and the graying of the baby boomers. "You can have a bad hip, a bad heart, a bad leg, and be 80 years old and still play golf very well," he notes. "You can't do that in tennis."

The trend hasn't escaped the notice of national tennis organizations, including equipment manufacturers and the United States Tennis Association, which runs the U.S. Open. They have responded with efforts to broaden the fan base--and that meant heading into territory shunned by the country-club set of King's youth. Last year the USTA kicked off a five-year, $50-million nationwide campaign expressly designed to assist programs like St. Paul Urban Tennis.

"The industry looked around and saw that they had missed the boat," says Tony Stingley, the Multicultural Tennis Director of the USTA's northern division. "The bottom line is that we've got to get more people playing the game." This year, the St. Paul Urban Tennis Program was awarded a special $10,000 "excellence grant" for its success in bringing more minority players into the game. The project, says Stingley, is one of the best of its kind in the country.

Vin Chung, now a junior majoring in kinesiology at the University of Minnesota, started out as a player in King's program in its first year. He joined at the urging of his parents, refugees from Vietnam, who, he says, wanted to expose him to kids from different backgrounds. "I grew up through the program," says Chung, now head instructor at the Harding High courts. "When I started, I wasn't thinking of going to college, but the instructors were really good role models. They got me thinking about goals."

Tunde Abe, a 52-year-old Nigerian immigrant who was first bit by the tennis bug when he was a senior at UM, agrees that the program's virtues go far beyond sport--and even beyond integration, one of the program's stated goals. Because it takes even talented athletes ten to fifteen years to master the fundamentals of the game, the veteran instructor says, players must develop patience. "Tennis is a game that is against the typical philosophy of an inner-city kid. The inability to wait is something which plagues them--the inability to stay with something, and stay with it for a long time," Abe opines. "They have to abandon that philosophy in tennis." In many cases, Abe says, those lessons appear to have stuck, as a rising number of program graduates have gone on to play in national tournaments. Some, including Abe's 18-year-old daughter Bolu, have parlayed their tennis skills into full-ride scholarships.

As far as King is concerned, opportunities for inner-city kids to play and master the sport will only increase in the coming years, especially as government agencies and nonprofits jump on the bandwagon with plans to create more off-season practice sites. In Minneapolis, the groundbreaking for a $4.5-million indoor-outdoor facility--the Fort Snelling Tennis and Mentoring Center--is expected to begin by fall, with a tentative opening date slated for next spring. Funded primarily by Minneapolis philanthropist Fred Wells, the center will be run by a private foundation, Tennis and Mentoring Inc., with the land leased from the Minneapolis Park Board. Its five bubbles and two outdoor courts will be available to the general public, according to manager Dan Shannon. But low rates and reserved times will be set aside for kids--including those in King's program and its Minneapolis counterpart, Inner City Tennis, which last year served some 5,000 kids. (A similar plan has been proposed by the State Amateur Athletic Commission for St. Paul, though there is no financing in place yet.)

All that, says King, will certainly help young players who have lacked adequate training spaces--and, perhaps, help dispel notions of the game as the sole province of "rich white kids."

"We want the sport to change its image," King adds. "To meet us."

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