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Tennis anyone? Fewer playing once-hot sport

 

By John Pike, Globe Correspondent, 5/14/2000

 

WAYLAND - In the 1970s, the scene at the nine tennis courts outside Wayland High School was usually bustling. On a typical spring weekend day, all the courts would be taken and players would line up for a chance to hit overhead smashes or try out their backhand.

 

But on a recent Sunday morning, the scene was far different. Despite the invitingly warm temperature, only one court was in use as a father played with his son.

The story is much the same across the Boston area. Tennis is less popular today than in the 1970s when the sport, propelled by the huge popularity of stars like Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert, enjoyed a heyday.

 

While there has been a recent uptick in regular players, tennis does not enjoy the same kind of following it had 20 years ago, say some officials. The Tennis Industry Association, a national group, estimated that the number of Americans who will play tennis once this year is 17 million. In 1992, that figure was 22.5 million.

And the figures seem to be borne out by what is happening - or not happening - at public courts throughout Greater Boston.

 

On the same day that most of the Wayland High courts were empty, public courts also were silent in Weston, Acton, and Lowell.

 

''The popularity of tennis has declined in recent years,'' said Peter Allen of Wayland, taking a break from a spirited game at the high school with his 10-year-old son, Sam. ''There is always a court open.''

 

There was a time in the 1970s when it was so hard to get playing time in Wayland that a group of local boys painted tennis lines on a dead-end street and erected a removable net.

 

Tennis is not as in vogue as it once was, players and game officials say, because working families have less free time on weekends, there are fewer US stars with the appeal of Connors and Everet, and more youngsters are playing organized sports, like soccer.

 

''Tennis has not had a star like Tiger Woods in a long time,'' said Gant Redmon of Sudbury. On many Sundays, Allen says, he ''never sees kids playing tennis with other kids.'' Occasionally, he will see a child and a parent playing, but most of the time it's adults competing against each other, he said. Sam Allen says he has never played tennis with school or neighborhood friends, only with his peers at summer camp.

 

In Lowell, public courts sat empty one recent weekend day while two dozen parents stood across the street cheering their children in a Little League baseball game.

Another key reason for tennis's decline, some observers say, is the advent of the computer age. The seduction of both the Internet and computer games is keeping more children indoors.

 

''I don't see kids doing much of anything outdoors anymore,'' said Roy Jemison of Acton. ''Years ago children used to spend all day outside, looking for frogs or playing sports. Now, they are on the computer.''

 

The United States Tennis Association, the sport's national governing body, is in the midst of a five-year initiative designed to increase the number of frequent players by 1 million by the end of 2002. According to the association, about 261,000 players were introduced to tennis last year, surpassing the association's goal of 140,000.

 

Still, regular players such as Jack Kilpatrick of Acton, say tennis has lost some of its luster.

''After the tennis surge in the 1970s, people then realized it takes a great deal of skill to keep the ball in play,'' Kilpatrick said.

 

Tennis skills, Jemison said, ''are harder than scoring a basket or kicking a big white ball into a net. It's so hard for little kids to play. Tennis is a game that comes later.''

 

This story ran on page B4 of the Boston Globe on 5/14/2000.

Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.