US tennis facing up to global challenge
When Andy Roddick was recently asked for the umpteenth time about the apparent decline of tennis in his country, the world number 10 gave a weary response.
"I think we're kind of a victim of our own success over the years in the sport," he said. "If you still stack us up against most countries, we're coming out ahead."
Tennis has always had a strongly international flavour, but for every Borg, Lendl, Becker or Edberg, there was always a McEnroe, Connors, Sampras or Agassi.
That balance is now shifting away from the US, raising questions for the sport.
At Wimbledon this year there were no US players in the women's quarter final, and only one man - Mardy Fish - in the last eight.
The US has been the leading market for tennis and still boasts more tournaments than any other country - 12 on the men's side and 10 on the women's, as well as the richest purse at the US Open - but the battle for TV viewers and on-site spectators is fierce.
And while both Roddick and compatriot Mardy Fish remain just inside the world's top 10, and the women's game boasts the biggest names out there in Venus and Serena Williams, as those players approach or pass 30 years old, the golden days appear to running out.
With that in mind, "global" is the key word on tennis administrators' lips these days, and it seems the American audience is holding firm for now.
"Television numbers haven't wildly fluctuated between, say, Serena Williams winning the women's side of a major on a Saturday and Roger Federer winning the men's side on a Sunday," says Eric Abner of Tennis Channel, an American subscription service that covers almost every event in the tennis year.
"Alongside the general similarities in viewer tune-in at all four Grand Slams throughout the year, regardless of the champions' countries, it would suggest that strong, entertaining performances from well-known players is more of a factor than contender nationality."
The leading names, such as Rafael Nadal, clearly carry a level of interest no matter where they are.
But whether that is enough to sustain an entire sport in the crowded American market is by no means guaranteed.
"A certain portion of the American public is ready to embrace foreign tennis stars," says Christopher Clarey, tennis writer for the International Herald Tribune and New York Times.
"Federer and Nadal are widely known now, but if that is the level of achievement required for a foreign tennis star to penetrate our consciousness, then that does not bode particularly well for the chances of future foreign tennis stars."
Mr Clarey said Maria Sharapova's US accent and looks had gained her a limited breakthrough, while the Williams were viewed with ambivalence by many in the US.
"Although Serena in particular generates a great deal of interest," adds Mr Clarey.
"The sport is certainly better off in the US with them in the mix and with Roddick winning - and quipping."
He said if no Americans emerged to replace the above - "a likely story for the next few years" - the sport would slip further in the US as a spectacle, particularly if the Federer-Nadal rivalry faded.
But both the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) and Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) are bullish about the "corporate support" they have managed to secure in the last year - the women's tour signing deals with Oriflame, Peak and Jetstar, and the men's signing or expanding deals with Corona, Fedex and Ricoh.
Meanwhile, the return of the Williams sisters has been greeted with fanfare. So how did the women's game cope while they were away?
"As an indication of the health of the sport in the US, our two biggest tournaments - Indian Wells and Miami - set attendance records and signed major new TV deals last year," says Stacey Allaster, chairman and CEO of the WTA.
"The US Open continues to break attendance records, grassroots participation is significantly up, and women's tennis players continue to rate very well in terms of awareness and likeability among sports stars in the US."
The tournaments mentioned remain strong but that is, in part, because they are among the relatively few outside the Grand Slams that host both the men and women.
Meanwhile, the news that 116 million Chinese viewers apparently tuned in for Li Na's French Open victory has certainly turned heads in the tennis world, and given a boost to the "global" narrative of women's tennis during the absence of the Williams.
"The fact women's tennis is the most global sport in the world is our greatest asset," says Ms Allaster.
She points to nine different nationalities in the top 10 (and it was 10 different nationalities very recently).
"So when you have such a globally successful product it really helps to have wide reach, especially in a downturn economy," she adds.
Tennis can certainly make a case for being among the most international of sports, but it is far from alone in that.
"Every sport in the world claims it's the global sport," says Professor Simon Chadwick of Coventry University's sport business department.
He said there was a global tussle between tennis, football and Formula 1, but that tennis had an advantage over the others in being less predictable.
"But the problem within that is it can be a homogenous mass. Tennis needs brand ambassadors and a sense of its identity and what it's trying to do."
That is less of an issue at the top of the men's game, as Prof Chadwick confirms: "In terms of a product, Federer-Nadal is as good as it gets."
That rivalry has an awareness among the crowded American sports market and that is the story the men's game is pushing.
"The sport's success is driven by what the players are doing on the court and this year is as exciting as ever," says ATP executive chairman and president, Adam Helfant.
He points to Federer v Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Juan Martin Del Potro and other young players providing a number of "storylines".
But an ideal scenario for tennis would be the emergence of new American names to ensure the country remained a strong presence at the top of the sport.
"The US market is very important to the Tour," says Helfant. "It is encouraging to see that tennis participation in the US is up over 30 million players for the first time in more than two decades. That certainly bodes well for the future."