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Brash, young American needed to light up tennis


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The epic battles of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe sent me out to my driveway.

There I would be, hitting tennis balls against the side of my family’s garage, the ricochet coming off the wall, and pounding into the hard-packed shale before it was time to hit it again.

You hear that clay produces bad bounces. Well, those folks haven’t played on shale. Compared with the upper-class, country club set, it wasn’t like a kid growing up on a property surrounded by dairy farms and railroad tracks was going to become an accomplished tennis star anyway.

But the thought was there.

As Wimbledon churns toward its close this weekend, no doubt it has produced memorable moments, high-quality action and tremendous champions.

Despite that, I have to wonder if the sport’s marquee event is sending aspiring tennis stars out to practice on less-than-perfect surfaces.

Sure, those that have been force-fed the sport since their toddler days will continue  to be enthralled by the majors. Is that spark still present, though, to capture of imagination of those youngsters who are trying to decide which way to go in a world of sporting choices?

Many things have changed since I was using a wooden racket to ruin the paint job on the garage. For one, the United States has disappeared as a power in men’s tennis.

Counting the current Wimbledon, it has been 39 majors since an American won a title. That was Andy Roddick at the U.S. Open in 2003.

If you start with Roddick’s victory and go back 39 more majors, you would find 19 American champions.

Flashing back to the 1970s, at a time when kids had only a handful of television channels to chose from, Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Roscoe Tanner, Vitas Gerulaitis, Connors and McEnroe all were Americans who won titles during the decade.

The point being that it was easier to capture a kid’s imagination, especially if it was raining and he or she was stuck in front of the television. In present times, kids have a lot more choices, so unless video game tennis includes karate and sword play, it’s going to take a lot to get a teen to sit still for three hours.

That means an incredible rivalry or amazing personalities. As annoying as it was to watch bad boys such as Connors and McEnroe, we watched.

Tennis isn’t the only sport in America that is searching for new star power. What was the last pro boxing match that captured your imagination because of a clash of personalities? It’s been a while.

One might argue that golf could have a similar problem once Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are no longer effective, but there is one major difference.

Golf has something very powerful in its favor, and that’s the fact that middle- and late-aged America can go to the golf course and hit shots. That personal interaction with the sport creates interest in watching the sport at the pro level.

Tennis, a wonderful game in terms of keeping yourself fit, is harder to enjoy if you don’t have many choices in terms of partners. And not only do you need to find someone willing to play, you have to find someone about your own skill level. A mismatch turns a game of tennis into a game of “hike.”

So I am going to continue to hope that a brash, young American bursts on to the tennis scene in the near future, to breathe new life into our tennis fires. He will make such an impact that people around town will be calling me for a game.

And this time, I won’t have to play on shale.

Jay Heater is The Republic sports editor. He can be reached at jheater@therepublic.com or 379-5632.

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