The Next Gen ATP finals, being held in Milan this week, made headlines even before a point had even been played. But as you probably know, the headlines were not flattering. At the draw ceremony on Sunday night, the eight players were brought on stage by models, who had letters hidden on their bodies indicating the group to which each player had been assigned. The letters were revealed in a burlesque manner that was every bit as garish and cringe-inducing as you might imagine.
By Monday morning, ATP executive chairman and president Chris Kermode was apologizing profusely for the crude curtain-raiser. He told reporters that it was a poorly conceived tribute to Milan’s status as a fashion capital and “in no way was this meant to be offensive to anyone.” I'm sure it wasn't, but you have to wonder about the decision-making process that yielded this debacle. Presumably, multiple people were involved in planning the draw ceremony. Not one of them realized that what they'd cooked up was appallingly sexist and tacky? The insensitivity was particularly dismaying when you consider that “Battle of the Sexes” is still in theaters and the Harvey Weinstein scandal is still unfolding.
It would be easy to dismiss what happened in Milan the other night as a one-off, a display of embarrassingly poor judgment that will never be repeated (and I’m reasonably certain that the scene we witnessed in Milan will never be repeated). But I think it is symptomatic of a…I don’t want to call it a problem; it’s more like a tic, a reflex, an occasional irritant. It is this: there seems to be a feeling among some people around tennis that the sport needs more flash, more edginess, more spectacle. For reasons I will explain in a moment, I think that is misguided. Worse, efforts to give tennis added sizzle are invariably kind of cheesy. The Milan fiasco was seriously cheesy. The ATP’s “new balls please” campaign was only slightly less so. The TV promos that we sometimes see during tournaments, with players vamping for the camera (doing air guitar and that sort of thing) are pretty cheesy, too.
There aren’t a lot of examples of this sort of thing, just enough to periodically annoy me. They annoy me because I think they are campy and because they reflect a desire to make tennis something it isn’t. Tennis will certainly never be the cool-kid sport. It will probably never have the hipness of the NBA (much as Nick Kyrgios might wish otherwise) or the badass factor that MMA has. What tennis has instead is glamour. It is the most glamorous of the major sports, a point underscored by the unrivaled attraction that it holds for luxury brands and by the frequency with which its biggest names are featured in Vogue and other fashion magazines (which adds a layer of irony to the tawdriness in Milan). Just look at all the celebrities who flock to the US Open to bask in the aura of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, the Williamses, Sharapova, etc. It is a sport that exudes worldliness, refinement, elegance, which is hardly the worst image for a sport to project.
So what explains these ham-handed attempts to give tennis more snap, crackle, and pop? I assume it is just another manifestation of the desire to make tennis more appealing to a younger audience—the same impulse that drives all the chatter about changing the rules to speed up matches. But as any advertising veteran will tell you, chasing after teenagers and twentysomethings is like trying to herd cats, especially with attention spans getting shorter and shorter thanks to all the gadgets at our disposal. And despite its staid reputation, tennis doesn’t appear to be struggling to pull in the under-30 set; at most pro tournaments, the stands and walkways are clogged with kids and young adults. If the sport is facing a demographic challenge, it doesn't look all that severe for the moment, and it is unlikely to be remedied by cheesy promos (or transgressive personalities—did Andre Agassi, in his frosted rat tail-and-denim-shorts days, bring in millions of new fans drawn to tennis by his rebelliousness? Not that I can recall). Tennis doesn’t make us cringe all that often, but it seems to me that the occasional lapses into silliness—or tastelessness—could be avoided by just accepting the game for what it is.