Who is this Eric Kay and how can he be paid to write such
Kay's Korner: Tennis needs a new star: Young, anyone?
By Eric Kay
It's match point against tennis, and its return just hit the top of the net. Will it fall on its side or the opponent's?
That's the question as the last American tennis icon -- rather, the last tennis icon in the world -- Andre Agassi bids adieu following his U.S. Open defeat.
In the days of Agassi -- and Sampras, Chang and Courier -- a decade ago, tennis witnessed its last great boom of prosperity. It wasn't late 1970s-esque, when it was the eighth most-played sport, but people were talking tennis. And that was because it was star driven.
Now Agassi is the last of the stars to fade. And all the suitors to carry the torch have crippling flaws that will prevent them from ever leading a tennis renaissance.
Roger Federer is an excellent player. He's steady, like a Swiss Army watch. But he's not sexy. Anointing Federer Grand Poobah of tennis is like painting a 1993 Ford Taurus bright orange and calling it the General Lee. The only ones you fool are the fools.
Sure, for tennis purists, Federer is golden. He plays the gentleman's game with all the chivalry required by society's upper crust. He says the right things, dresses the right way and doesn't have a plethora of paparazzi following his every move. But when has a sport ever found enduring success by catering to aristocratic desires?
Now, Rafael Nadal is sexy. But Nadal's a soccer player stuck running baselines, not goal lines. Every French Open, Patrick McEnroe, Billy Jean King and Brad Gilbert feel the need to inform us of Nadal's first passion. Tennis is a paycheck to the Spaniard, not so much a Tiger-esque mission in life.
Let's say for a second it is his passion. No next-great-one will come from Spain.
Spain's a great place, it used to be the center of the world 500 years ago. But now it's known more for flaccid futbol and flan than it is for tennis. Plus, tennis' next-great-one can't be born on a clay court. We've tried that with Alberto Costa, Carlos Moya and Nadal. We hear the same thing over and over: They can't win on surfaces other than clay. It's like trying to make an argument for the NFL's Colts or Rams. It's tough to put the kitty on a team that plays a majority of its games inside on turf when you know the biggest games -- playoff football -- will likely be played outdoors and on grass.
The only way tennis can find its way back to America's living rooms is with a bona fide star. And he needs to be from the U.S. An English star would work temporarily, particularly if he won Wimbledon. It would be like what 2004 was for Red Sox nation; no Brit has dusted the competition on grass since Fred Perry in 1936. If Andy Murray could somehow break the curse of Freddy, tennis would get a nice jolt. But the novelty would wear. Sure, we'd get the subsequent Ace It Like Andy flick and see a spike in Newcastle sales, but tennis has survived this long without a British star. What's the thinking it could ride one's coattails into the future?
A French star would offer a little more staying power. Most of the world -- and the American conservative radio dial -- would love nothing more than having a Frenchman atop the tennis world. If you can't love the man atop the rankings, hate him. Because France is to heightened drama what Russia was in the late 1980s, an American-French final would galvanize the average fan. But it is France we're talking about. They're not pointing nukes at us like Russia was during the Ivan Drago era. They're better utilized as a campy NASCAR-movie villain, not sports rejuvenators. Plus, nobody really hates Tony Parker or Boris Diaw in the NBA. Won't cut it.
In order for tennis to succeed -- and by succeed, we mean thrive in America -- it has to find the proper young star. And there's no organization better at finding young -- but more important, marketable -- talent than Nike.
Nike has made a fortune investing in young African-Americans. It poured nearly $100 million into LeBron James before he could vote. It dumped mega-millions on Tiger Woods before he could drink. Together, with a young Michael Jordan, it created the sporting apparel industry.
There aren't many Nike commercials -- or commercials altogether -- with Dirk Nowitki, Steve Nash, Curt Schilling, Davis Love III, Zach Thomas or Roger Federer. That's not saying white doesn't sell or isn't capable of being the next-great-one. Peyton Manning is plastered all over the television spectrum, and commercials in general are white-centered.
But in terms of creating sports icons who can be the face of a game, no organization seems better at harvesting stars than Nike. And Nike has found that tossing money at young African-American talents is profitable. Whether Nike created that atmosphere or is simply piggy-backing changing social tides is up for debate. What isn't is that tennis needs a star. And following the money is one way to search for the next one.
So if there is hope for tennis, it might be in Donald Young. The 17-year-old two-time defending U.S. National Junior Champion recently signed a clothing deal with Nike. He's the youngest-ever winner of a boys' Grand Slam junior singles title -- the 2005 Australian Open -- and he participated in the U.S. Open. And he's African-American.
There's something electric about someone who's superficially different and superbly talented playing, and winning, in a sport heavy on tradition. Whether it's because of buried racist tendencies, a dormant desire for social activism or just the itch to see change -- any sort of change -- the sports community digs this sort of environment.
There's many ways tennis can come back to the forefront -- umpire dunk tank, flaming service lines, topless ball girls -- but one serious, albeit little-talked-about solution is having an outsider rock the tennis world. It was Agassi, after all, who made a fortune playing the part of a "rebel." So if Nike's track record is anything to follow, Donald Young just might be the ace tennis needs to stay at the table.