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Is Tennis A Popular Sport?

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In the U.S., while basketball, football, and baseball take center stage, tennis is also huge with a reported 17.9 million players. Even more people than this are tennis fans and watch tennis matches regularly.

Additionally, over 14 million Americans report they have an interest in playing tennis but are not playing yet. As the population of the U.S. steadily increases, so should the number of tennis players and fans.

Many people are unaware that tennis is one of the most popular sports in the world. According to worldatlas.com, tennis currently sits at number 4 in popularity with one billion worldwide fans.

The only three sports more popular than tennis are soccer (4 billion fans), cricket (2.5 billion fans), and field hockey (2 billion fans). For those in the United States, we know that cricket and field hockey are rarely played.

In the U.S., soccer falls behind the major four sports in popularity. But due to its popularity on a global scale, it has a large fan base in the U.S. as well.

With tennis having its own channel since 2003 (The Tennis Channel) and tournaments being featured almost every week on TV, the sport is growing. Currently, the Australian Open is coming up, which is one of the biggest tournaments of the year.

The total prize money for the tournament is $62.5 million, with an unprecedented $4.1 million going to the winner. In the last 18 years, the total prize money has increased a whopping 351%.

This goes to show that tennis is right on track to keep climbing in popularity, not just in the U.S. and Australia, but throughout the world. With megastars such as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal owning the sport for the last two decades, tennis has enjoyed continued growth over that time.

The beauty of tennis is that new stars are always ready to emerge. A recent example is when 20-year-old Naomi Osaka shocked the world by easily beating Serena Williams in the 2018 U.S. Open.

There’s no shortage of amazing talent on the horizon. I watch the Tennis Channel often on my 75-inch big screen. Seems like every time I turn on the TV, there’s some new male or female player that “wows” me.

I’m sure tennis will be in good hands when Roger, Rafa, and the Williams sisters retire in a few years. Though with Roger, he looks so good now, he might stick around 10 more years just because he can.



 

Where Is Tennis Most Popular?

 

While tennis is a popular worldwide sport, it’s played and watched in some nations more than others. One nation that comes up high on the list is Australia. It makes sense, with one of the four grand slam tournaments (Australian Open) being held there.

Participation in Australia for tennis is high, but cricket and football (or rugby) are ahead of tennis there. The same can be said for New Zealand, which is close to Australia.

The other countries that host the grand slams (the U.S., France, and England) are all high on the tennis popularity list. While we can never know for sure which country has the most fans and players, we can see its quite evenly spread out in the more developed nations.

Spain has had remarkable success in tennis over the last generation. Likewise, Switzerland has enjoyed great success as well. France has produced a ton of very good talent over the last 50 years.

Statistics on the Internet are often misleading. This makes it difficult to give a definitive answer to this question.

If you look at the top 100 men and women in the world, notice which countries the players represent. The countries most often represented probably have the largest popularity.

I’ve also read that China is a growing force in tennis, with many young men and women now being taught the game. Tennis courts are being built there as fast as they can make them.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see a bunch of new Chinese faces in both the men’s and women’s game in the top 100 a generation from now.

 

Who Made Tennis Popular?

Tennis in France in the 16th century.

 

Tennis was invented in the 1500s in France. While the game really didn’t resemble the beautiful game we see today, the rudiments were in place.

The game took a major leap forward in 1850 when vulcanized rubber was created. This type of ball, made of rubber, made it possible to play on grass lawns in the outdoors.

History has it that Major Walter Wingfield, a Londoner, thought up a game called “Playing Ball”. This game was developed in 1873 and it’s said that modern tennis evolved from Wingfield’s creation.

While it was originally played on an hourglass shape, it quickly changed to the rectangular court we know today.

In a few short years, croquet clubs in England began adopting the game. The first real tennis tournament on record was held in 1877 by the All England Croquet Club in Wimbledon.

The rules of this tournament were different from what we know today. First, women were not allowed to play. This changed in 1884 though, as a women’s championship for singles was created. Second, all serving was done underhand.

While a form of tennis was played in Europe and gaining popularity, it really wasn’t played in the U.S. That changed when an American lady named Mary Ewing Outerbridge took a vacation to Bermuda.

There she discovered the game of lawn tennis. It may seem odd that tennis was being played on the small island of Bermuda.

But British officials and their wives had brought the game to Bermuda and the colonies. It was primarily played by the wealthy.

Outerbridge loved the game and purchased tennis gear while in Bermuda. Upon her return home to Staten Island, New York, she introduced tennis to her family and friends.

Coincidentally, Outerbridge’s brother was the director of the Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club. He took a liking to tennis and realized its potential as a popular sport. Without wasting any time, he added a lawn tennis court to the club.

It wasn’t long before the United States National Lawn Tennis Association formed (1884) and national singles and doubles championships were held. Of course, women were excluded at first. But a few years later, women were allowed to play both singles and doubles too.

Davis Cup, 1913

 

Unlike many other sports, men and women enjoyed fairly equal parity in tennis, which is why I believe it gained so much popularity so quickly. With women being allowed to play, earn prize money, and become stars, it attracted ever more women to the game.

As the game evolved, so did the equipment and skill level of the players. In the 1920s, the American Helen Wills burst onto the tennis scene and dominated the sport for a generation.



In fact, she won a record 180 matches in a row – and all without dropping even a single set. Talk about domination.

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Wills was the face of tennis. Crowds loved to see her play and she racked up 17 grand slams and two Olympic gold medals in that time. She retired in 1938 and was largely responsible for making tennis popular in America and Europe.

 

What Countries Is Tennis Played In?

tennis flags

 

Tennis is played in most countries throughout the world. It’s difficult to even think of a single country that doesn’t have a tennis court or tennis players. Even the poorest countries in the world have them.

While nations like France, Germany, Croatia, Spain, the U.S., England, and Australia are firmly entrenched in the game, others like China and Korea are growing their tennis base.

Currently, professional tennis tournaments are played in every continent of the world with the exception of Antarctica. The most popular tennis countries are in Europe, North America, and Australia.

But tennis is gaining in popularity in Central and South America, as well as Asia, New Zealand, and Africa. You can now find tennis players ranked in the top 100 from all these places – and the list is growing.

Africa is the only continent still lagging behind. Currently, the only ATP and WTA tournaments in Africa are held in Morocco. But I expect that number will increase to two or more events in the coming decade, perhaps with South Africa hosting a tournament soon.

What may surprise some non-tennis fans, is that tennis is quite popular in the Middle East. Countries like Qatar (250 level) and the United Arab Emirates (500 level) host tournaments for both the ATP and WTA. No doubt the wealthy elite in those countries are big-time tennis fans and fund the tournaments.

 

Will Tennis Increase In Popularity?

I believe the answer is yes, tennis will become more popular. As developing nations build tennis courts and have access to tennis coverage, tennis will see a surge in those nations.

The perfect example is China.

Tennis wasn’t a big sport there even as little as 20 years ago. But with the addition of thousands of new courts, better coaching, and millions of new potential players, tennis will be well-represented in the Asian countries.

Already a global sport, the chances of tennis remaining stagnant or waning in popularity are very slim. I believe tennis will continue to grow and could one day out-pace field hockey in popularity.

With new talent emerging from all over the globe, prize money at record levels, and tennis coverage greater than ever, tennis is poised to continue its upward growth. All signs point to a trend up.

When Roger and Rafa retire, it’ll be up to the new generation to find the next big superstars. Truly, in any sport, the superstars are why a lot of people tune in. It’s box office when LeBron James, Tom Brady, or Connor McGregor take to the stage.

It’s often the same in tennis. Yes, there will always be hardcore fans who tune in no matter what. I happen to be one. But there are certain players that come along once or twice in a generation that transcend the sport.

These larger-than-life personalities bring in new fans and make people interested in the sport. Examples are Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Babe Ruth, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, etc.

These people turned casual observers or people not even interested in the sport into raving fans. They even became icons for a whole new generation of young people.

But not all athletes need be icons to be entertaining. Even players not as successful can make us want to watch a sport. Look at John McEnroe.

No tennis expert recognizes John as the greatest of all time (though he was a top player of his generation) but he put fans in seats because of his over-the-top personality.

The same could be said for the former NBA player Dennis Rodman. With Dennis, a basketball game wasn’t just a sporting contest, it was a show. Which hair color would he have that night and which antics would he pull off next?



The closest we’ve had to Dennis in our sport is Ilie Nastase, who was a top player in the 1970s. His antics at matches, even during crucial points, always thrilled crowds. In the 90s and 2000s, Andre Agassi was by far the most colorful player and attracted tens of thousands of new fans to tennis.

I believe tennis needs a colorful personality like that to take a big jump up in popularity. Currently I don’t see any men or women like that in tennis.

But perhaps that’s because it’s a gentleman’s sport and that type of behavior goes against tennis protocol. With social media tracking everyone’s actions, players need to be more careful than ever with their words and antics.

Still, time will tell who emerges as the next tennis superstar. Even if they are not as flamboyant as John McEnroe – and chances are they won’t – tennis is in good hands. I believe it will certainly remain one of the most popular sports in the world for decades to come.

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