I thought I was a pretty fair 11-year-old Little League pitcher when my dad, figuratively, took the baseball out of my hand and replaced it with a tennis racket. This was in 1969, when the United States was in the grip of another tennis boom and my father was, without question, one of the sport's most avid participants.
But he had a larger point to make. "If you're very, very good, odds are you can play organized baseball through high school, maybe college," he said, or words to that effect. "You can play tennis for the rest of your life."
It didn't work out that way for me. I played through the 1970s but only sporadically after that; I found the game much too frustrating. But my two younger brothers, now in their 40s and early 50s, have continued to play. My dad, though recently slowed by back problems, still takes the court occasionally at 78. My mom plays doubles twice a week at 79, the youngest member of her foursome.
It's surprising, when you think about it, that a nation so concerned about childhood and adult obesity hasn't embraced tennis. The sport provides a fine workout -- especially if you're playing singles -- requires relatively inexpensive equipment and is easily accessible at parks and schools, where it can be played free of charge just about any time the weather allows. It's not a difficult sport to learn, and low-cost lessons are widely available.
And U.S. tennis heroes abound. Mine was Arthur Ashe. To this day I remember the story of the kid from Richmond who learned the game in public parks and went on to win the 1968 U.S. Open as an amateur and later Wimbledon as a pro, blazing a trail for black tennis players. From Ashe there is an unbroken line of stars -- Billie Jean King, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Chris Evert, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick -- to the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, who dominate the U.S. tennis landscape today.
Yet through decades of boom and bust, despite all evidence to the contrary, tennis has never completely shed its image as a sport for wealthy white kids, golf in sneakers instead of spikes. This despite the fact that most tennis, 70 percent in fact, is now played on public courts, not in private clubs, according to Kurt Kamperman, chief executive for community tennis at the U.S. Tennis Association. Participation in the sport reached an all-time high of 30 million in 2009, though it is down in the past two years to 27 million, Kamperman told me in an email.
But soccer long ago surpassed tennis as a sport our kids want to play. In a 2008 study by the Women's Sports Foundation, tennis doesn't make the list of 11 most popular sports for either girls or boys, though Frisbee and bowling do.
There are efforts to change that. For the past decade, the USTA has spent millions of dollars to introduce tennis to children through school and after-school programs, focusing on all races and income levels, Kamperman said. It runs the National Junior Tennis and Learning program (founded by Ashe 30 years ago), with more than 550 chapters serving 300,000 kids, mostly in urban areas. The organization also is heavily involved in building and renovating public courts.
One such community program is the Montgomery TennisPlex, a new tennis center in Boyds, Md., a 12-court facility with four outdoor hard courts and eight more in an all-weather bubble. In a public-private venture with Hall of Fame tennis coach Jack Schore, the facility, which cost taxpayers nothing, is designed to meet a demand from area parents, who told officials in a survey that they'd like more tennis courts.
Schore and the TennisPlex's general manager, Kevin Dowdell, have decades of experience bringing tennis programming to underserved populations. The new facility has no membership requirement, so anyone can play outdoors at any time. It focuses on group lessons, which are less expensive than private ones.
Already Schore and Dowdell have brought a miniature version of the game, with smaller rackets and larger balls, to nearby elementary schools, where 80 youngsters have enrolled in a before-school program that is heavy on cardio work, Schore said. More than 200 are learning the game at the TennisPlex.
"We're really into fighting the obesity problem," Schore said. "We won't allow a Coke machine anywhere near our place. It's all healthy food."