Tennis may be steeped in tradition. And when played by wizards such as Belgium's Justine Henin-Hardenne and Switzerland's Roger Federer, it may be the most elegant game ever devised. But it is bordering on irrelevance to American sports fans, who are tuning out in droves -- whether turned off by the lightning pace of play, the preponderance of international players whose names they can't pronounce, or the absence of homegrown hellions like Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe.
While the decline has been evident for more than two decades -- interrupted by surges of interest when Venus and Serena Williams do well -- it reached a low when TV ratings for the 2004 U.S. Open rolled in last fall. With no Americans in the finals, the championship matches drew the smallest TV audience on record: a 2.5 rating for the men's final, which pitted Federer against Australia's Lleyton Hewitt; and a 2.2 for the all-Russian women's final, in which Svetlana Kuznetsova defeated Elena Dementieva.
More than twice as many viewers watched when Serena and Venus faced off in the 2002 U.S. Open final, which drew a 5.2 rating. But even with a dream matchup in its Grand Slam events, tennis is struggling to attract half the audience that NASCAR currently enjoys. This year's Daytona 500 drew a 10.9 rating -- more than four times that of last year's U.S. Open men's final. (Ratings indicated the percentage of all homes with televisions, whether or not they're in use. A 2.5 rating means that 2.5 percent of U.S. households with TVs tuned in to watch.)
Starting Monday, the U.S. Tennis Association takes another swing at reclaiming its eroding audience, rolling out the second year of its U.S. Open Series with a $3 million ad campaign, a new look for tennis courts (blue rather than green) and a roster of nicknames ginned up by marketing executives in an effort to transform players like Germany's Tommy Haas ("the Stud") and France's Amelie Mauresmo ("the Artiste") into household names.
The goal of the U.S. Open Series is to re-energize tennis by introducing the top players -- American and international alike -- to sports fans whose attention has been siphoned off by golf, stock-car racing and every sport and pastime in between.
Longtime sports marketing executive and former Davis Cup captain Donald Dell hails it as the most important thing the USTA has done to promote tennis in the last 50 years.
"I say that very deliberately," said Dell, who was instrumental in brokering the U.S. Open Series TV deal and negotiating the thorny politics of an initiative that involved three governing bodies, four networks, 10 tournaments and three sponsors.
The strategy behind the U.S. Open Series isn't exactly revolutionary. It draws on the basic formula of major league sports, cleaving the North American hard-court calendar in two, with a regular season that culminates in a postseason.
"We've always felt that big-time sports is about telling a season-long story with a big finale," explains Arlen Kantarian, the USTA's chief executive of professional tennis. "The purpose of the U.S. Open Series was to provide tennis with that same platform, which it now has."
In short, all 10 of this summer's North American hard-court tournaments share a common purpose: building toward the season-ending U.S. Open, which kicks off Aug. 29 in New York.
The series begins today in Indianapolis, when the RCA Championships get underway. The women swing into action July 25, at the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, Calif. Week 3 brings the men to Washington for the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, Aug. 1-7.
At each tournament along the way players collect points in addition to prize money. At summer's end, the top three men and women in the points standings qualify for bonus prize money at the U.S. Open: double prize money for the series champions, which translates to a $2.2 million payday if they win the U.S. Open; a 50 percent bonus for the second-place finishers; and a 25 percent bonus for the third-place finishers.
The tournaments should be easier to find on TV. Every tournament final will be broadcast live at 3 p.m. on Sundays, either by NBC, CBS or ESPN. They'll have a consistent "look," boasting bright blue courts that should make it easier for TV viewers to see the ball.
The USTA is also pouring more than $3 million into a marketing blitz to promote it all, with TV spots, a revamped Internet site and print ads touting the U.S. Open Series as "summer's hottest reality series." In that vein, its executives have bestowed the lead "actors" in tennis's "reality series" with a nickname.
In tennis's heyday, nicknames like "Jimbo" and "Nasty" arose a bit more spontaneously -- blurted out by an announcer or bestowed by a scribe. But with waves of youngsters from all corners of the globe shooting up the rankings overnight, the USTA is desperate to forge a connection, however contrived, between players and the viewing public.
"Tennis is very much of a star sport," Dell said. "The great thing about the U.S. Open Series is, hopefully, you're going to start building new stars."
But whether fans will start referring to Spain's Rafael Nadal as "Boy Wonder" and Russia's Kuznetsova as "the Contender," as the USTA suggests, remains to be seen.
In the interim, 2003 U.S. Open Champion Andy Roddick, whom the USTA has dubbed "Rocket Man," is optimistic about the series' prospects for injecting new interest in the sport.
"It makes it feel like the whole summer is kind of in unison on something," said Roddick, who headlines the draw at Washington's Legg Mason next month. "It may make it a little simpler for the fans knowing that all these tournaments before the Open have a common goal leading up to the Open. They're kind of prep work; they have a direct effect on what might happen at the U.S. Open."