Around the World in 50 Courts – Looking Forward
According to Yogi Berra, a malaprop-prone former catcher for the New York Yankees, “it is tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
Fortunately, predictions are usually passive. They tell you what might happen if all you did was extrapolate from current trends. The better view, it seems to me, is to ask what you would change to nudge the outcomes in the right direction. Assuming, of course, people could agree on what that direction might be.
The last half century has been a good one for court tennis, but it took considerable effort on the part of many people. Surely, another successful half century will require the same.
Here is a laundry list of suggestions that the next generation of court tennis leaders might well add to their own ideas. Some will be better than others. Some will have higher priority than others. Some might simply resonate with the leaders themselves.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this story will be the comments it elicits. Please add your own ideas and offer your observations about the ones following.
It feels safe to think that communication will improve. Players throughout the world will more readily interact with each other. Friendships should strengthen and ideas for new and better ways to enjoy the game will germinate.
The Boomerang in Melbourne is the first truly global event drawing winter travelers from the northern hemisphere to Australia’s January summer for a two-week festival of team handicap tennis.
That idea gave rise to the “Trois Tripots” played in the Basque country of southern France. Few seem to mind that the courts merely approximate today’s court tennis courts. They are close enough and the players enjoy being with their international friends in a delightful atmosphere.
Covid notwithstanding, the trend in airfares has been steadily downward, making it possible for more people to afford to travel more often. Airbnb has also contributed to the decline in travel costs. I applaud both as I favor the international friendships that are so much a part of the game.
The idea of local players being welcomed in clubs throughout the world was a key feature that made a relationship with Prince’s Court attractive to Westwood Country Club.
I can imagine increasing opportunities for combining sports around court tennis. These would primarily be summer sports like tennis, golf, pickleball and padel as there is little geographic synergy with winter sports like skiing.
Most venues have but one court and that either limits the number of people who can play in a weekend tournament or lengthens the time needed to accommodate a larger number, while providing sufficient play. Combining events like tennis and golf or court tennis and lawn tennis will be appealing to those who don’t like to spend too much time sitting around.
The new court at Westwood Country Club near Washington will join Tuxedo as the world’s only venue that offers both court tennis and golf in the same place. Such multisport opportunities are worthy of replication.
The economics of the game change substantially when court usage increases. In the airline industry, as soon as the plane takes off, the empty seats are gone forever. They can never be sold again, and the revenue is irrevocably lost. So it is with unused court hours.
The easiest way to enhance the economic aspects of a career for a professional is to sharply increase court usage.
Understandably, clubs are loath to own up to small membership bases and low court usage, but both phenomena put additional pressure on philanthropy to bridge the gap.
Philanthropy can only go so far, and it is needed for capital costs rather than shoring up deficits.
If there is a need for paper communication anywhere in the game, it is lost on me. For a time, it was justified because “older people were not tech savvy.” While that might once have been true, the actuarial tables have taken their toll, and those who are today’s older people are tech savvy.
Only the Tennis & Rackets Association reliably publishes an annual report. It can do so because it has a paid staff that knows how to do it with tolerable levels of pain.
The US Court Tennis Association soldiers on with volunteers and recently published a “three years in one” edition. I suspect this will get worse as producing glossy magazines is not generally a task associated with volunteer efforts. Australia and France don’t even try.
I doubt paper communications will extend far into the future. In the interim, the T&RA could offer to produce a worldwide annual report and the other countries could chip in their share of the cost.
With but 12,000 players throughout the world, communication can be centralized. In the United States, there are youth soccer programs that have 12,000 players and all communications emanate from one place.
The Real Tennis Online handicap system is the best source of player data and the most logical source of communication.
If it is possible to design, price and order a Mini on a website (I choose the Mini because it is the automobile with the most variables and the largest number of options), surely it is possible to design one worldwide website that enables people to see what they want and need to see while ensuring that electronic communications go only to those who should receive them. Though there would be an initial outlay to design it, the long-term savings would be substantial to say nothing of increased accuracy at lower cost thanks to greater efficiency.
There is a risk that a single worldwide site could stifle creativity. This should be avoided though the tendencies toward rule making, and bureaucracy are difficult to overcome.
Chris Ronaldson observes in “Marking 50 Years” that the number of courts has essentially doubled since his career began. If the trend where to continue, the next 50 years would bring the game to about 100 courts and 20,000 to 25,000 players. I am doubtful that will happen without effort or, perhaps more importantly, without purpose.
Other games like lacrosse in the United States, pickleball, squash and, more recently, padel, have grown even more quickly. What do these games do that ours does not?
First, it seems to me they provide economic incentive to enable hard-working entrepreneurial people to create careers for themselves in the game.
Promoting lacrosse as a college sport encouraged high schools to create teams that would feed players into the athletic scholarship system. This in turn led to the creation of non-school-based programs to teach more children the game at the highest level. Though there is a nascent professional league, lacrosse is not really a game for grown-ups.
Pickleball seems to thrive because it is easy, and older people, whose mobility might be in the past, can remain active at something. It seems to rely less on money making as a proposition, but it is also far cheaper to create vast numbers of pickleball courts than even lawn tennis courts let alone court tennis courts.
Squash seems to have grown in a way that might be most effective for court tennis. Colleges have teams, schools have teams, the game is played for life, there are money making opportunities for both coaches and developers of multi-court facilities. It has also touched the “giving back” impulse by creating programs for disadvantaged children.
It seems to me a worthy project could be created and funded to hire a sports management firm like IMG (or perhaps a smaller and hungrier one) to determine how to move from where the game is to where it might want to be. That is too much to ask of volunteers, both in terms of skill and time commitment.
Court tennis courts are expensive and, as yet nobody has figured out how to provide a suitable return on investment for the capital cost. The best they have been able to do is manage courts effectively enough to cover the running costs while putting enough aside for periodic maintenance.
This leaves charity as the only source of capital. Both the United Kingdom and the United States have tax favored charitable vehicles that make fund raising possible. France has one that is now being tested, but I am not aware of any in Australia.
These vehicles solve part of the problem, but the game is not yet sophisticated in the management of donors at all levels. “Round up the usual suspects” when funds are needed is not a long-term strategy.
In the past, global initiatives have been hampered by travel costs and time commitments. That concern is significantly decreased thanks to Zoom. Would a group of thinkers from throughout the world participate in thoughtfully designed discussions of various aspects of the game, with a view toward improving them? I suspect people might, though such efforts might well feel threatening to the existing governance structures of the various countries.
Were I in a leadership position on one of the governing associations, (nope, I am not volunteering), I would be concerned that there is nothing keeping separate groups of individuals from getting together to think for themselves.
If that were to happen, I doubt any of the governing bodies would be able to get in the way. Considering that, perhaps the governing bodies themselves would like to get behind the idea of a global rethink?
Likely, the most important variable in the future of the game is prosperity. The game is not going to be cheap even if we come up with printed courts. If prosperity persists, the values inherent in the game – good sportsmanship, respect, no cheating, good fellowship, and perhaps even life learners – should be sufficient to attract more of the sort of well-educated, fair-minded individuals who presently play the game.
Not a bad goal.