| By Lonnie Mitchel

What has changed in the game of tennis since the tennis boom of the 60s and 70s?


I wrote in the last issue of Long Island Tennis Magazine that tennis is a gift for a lifetime, and that will be my battle cry for all parents who want to do something great for their kids. Tennis has evolved in many ways during the last 30-40 years. Billie Jean King, for one thing, has made great strides over the years being our sport’s best ambassador and helping to evolve our game and bring tennis to the masses.
Local tennis clubs and the USTA have embraced the new Tennis QuickStart program, which has introduced our young children to the game. However, I still question if most kids from middle class and working class families can afford it? Some may say yes, I say we have made progress, but have a long way to go. As our sport of choice, I am embarrassed to say that, in some ways, we remain an elitist sport. Let’s be realistic, the cost of really improving our game is prohibitive for most. Whether you are an aspiring recreational player or a top-level junior or senior, there are quite a few hidden costs which, for most families on Long Island, are a reach.
Let’s take a nostalgic trip back to the late 1960s and 70s and talk about this young phenom from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. who graced the Holiday Park Public Courts. -Synonymous with the tennis boom, Chris Evert burst onto the scene as if she was tennis’s version of the high school prom queen. She was my sports idol at the time, along with Joe Namath of the New York Jets and the Miracle Mets of 1969. But, Chris Evert played the sport I played the most, and I celebrated her arrival on the scene by purchasing a 3 X 5 framed picture of her. There she stood with her distinct two-handed backhand pose with her classic wood racquet framed and nailed right onto my bedroom wall. She stayed on that wall until I moved out of my parent’s home. I admit it, I was in love with Chrissie, and I have not forgiven Jimmy Connors for “stealing my girl.” At the time, I did not know why I loved her, I just did.
So what was it that I loved about Chrissie? I have thought about it over time as I matured. She learned to play tennis on a public court from her father who toiled teaching tennis at Holiday Park in Ft. Lauderdale, seven days a week in the hot Florida sun. She came from a middle class background, and I saw her as a “commoner;” one of us, so to speak, who mastered the game of tennis with the help of her father as she became “America’s Sweetheart.” She is, and will always be, one of the great champions of our time. At the time, Jimmy Connors, who was in his prime, was too brash for me, and Rod Laver, who I also admired, was past his prime. So Chrissie was it for me with her super cool personality who showed no signs of aggression until she walked on the courts. Her classy style and consistent ground stroke earned her the nicknames, the Ice Princess and the Ice Maiden, are forever etched in my mind.
Chris Evert came from the public courts of Ft. Lauderdale to eventually win all of those Grand Slam titles. I too learned the game of tennis on a public court, and my father and mother introduced the game to me just like Chris. I could relate to her like no other professional athlete. I had one wooden racquet with good strings that lasted forever, Stan Smith tennis sneakers that wore on and on, and one can of white tennis balls. All I did was just play the game, emulating her beautiful ground strokes, being successful with that approach throughout my high school and college career. Being consistent and mentally tough was the strategy that I would employ to help me win just like Chrissie. The fact that she was a woman didn’t matter, she was a winner! However, the technology changed, the racquets got bigger and more powerful and my beautiful Chris Evert strokes died a slow death. No longer could I get away with my classic eastern forehand and backhand strokes. Heavy topspin and the power game became the norm, along with the “space age” material racquets that were being produced. My game had to change if I was to survive in the world of power tennis. 
Let’s continue to fast-forward to 2009 and talk about the changes. I will share several experiences, which some of you may also be experiencing. Over the past several years, I have both of my sons supplement their tennis with the team sport of baseball. I paid $90 with which the boys get uniforms, 15 games on a well-groomed baseball diamond, numerous practices and clinics at the local elementary school and coaches who graciously volunteer their time with outdoor practices. If a child does not have a baseball glove or bat, the league will supply the equipment. In addition, there are two coaches on every team and other parents who are willing to help in any way possible. In tennis, $90 gets you a moderately-priced racquet. For $90, you can get a tennis lesson or some court time … in the winter. The point is, if you want to make great strides, $90 will not get you too far. I am lucky, my sons have been exposed to tennis by my wife’s and my own efforts, and we have taken advantage of our tennis affiliations. However, if it were not for those advantages, we would not be able to afford the joys of the games and get our children to the level they aspire to be.
I entered my son in two USTA tournaments this month and spent $100 for the entry fees. Believe me, that $100 comes to us with a lot of hard work and if he loses in the first round of those two tournaments, $100 for two matches is what we invested. The parents who regularly spend this money for tournaments hand over this money and know it is a necessity to get to the level of play that our children aspire to reach. I ask you though, how many others have we scared off into another sport that is friendlier to the wallets?
The financial challenges are endless for our game. New racquets exceeding $200 come out every year. Endless expenses for racquet stringing occur, because we taught our next generation to hit with heavy topspin with extreme semi-western and western grips. Tennis sneakers, clothing, court time, lessons are all becoming cost prohibitive. A local tennis chain called my house and wanted to sign my son up for winter 2009/2010 training, and for a “reasonable amount” of $4,000, you can get him into an intensive program. For $4,000, families who are serious will write the check and send their children on their way. Well the last time I checked, there is no tree of money growing in our yards. But I know something that other middle class families probably don’t know. “It is worth it because of the dividends it will pay in the mental and physical well-being of my children.” But $4,000, where can I come up with this money?
Many would say in order to get good at something, you need to practice and invest in training. There is truth to that and it can be said for any activity, whether it’s golf, playing an instrument or taking pitching lessons with the local baseball trainer. However, this article and magazine is about tennis, and I am just trying to bring to light that we can do more to help grow our game. I am not necessarily talking about every child playing USTA tournaments or taking private lessons. Pros or league players, can you volunteer your time at a school if asked? Tennis centers, can you offer discounted rates at non-peak times when the courts are generally empty to local elementary, middle and high schools (student rates)? We have the summer USTA Interclub Adult Team Leagues. What about in the winter, having Teens Winter Teams sponsored by USTA? Have a “Kids Week” at all tennis facilities. I do not have all the answers quite frankly. I am just saying that maybe the people who directly affect these decisions, whether it be the USTA or club owners, can do more. There is just not enough going on for those who cannot afford it with the infrastructure that is currently in place. The proof is that many of the public courts have plenty of availability and the schoolyard courts are predominantly empty. It makes you think, doesn’t it? The economy is soft and tennis clubs are being forced to be more proactive to attract players to their facilities. “Grow the game in other ways and the business will come.” The USTA has Kids Day before the U.S. Open at the National Tennis Center. But we on Long Island can do more!
It has been a financial challenge to get my children some good tennis training. The lessons I personally can give them with the time I have is limited. I am not asking for help in any way. My wife and I do what we have to do to make improvements in our children’s tennis game. We make personal sacrifices for this important investment. However, I think I am representative of the Long Island middle class demographic that is experiencing a challenging economic recession. Most Long Island middle class families have to tweak their personal expenditures during this period, and therefore, tennis, for many, becomes out of reach. We, as a family living in East Meadow, will be making some financial sacrifices and our children’s tennis training will suffer as a result. However, I am acutely aware of the importance of tennis playing and the gift it offers for the rest of our lives. Therefore, some investment in tennis will always be included in our annual personal budget. Stop and think how many people have been scared away from the game because of the costs I described in the article. They will never know the joys that we know. If we call tennis “A Sport for a Lifetime,” let’s all be cognizant of the financial challenges and extend a hand in one way or another to help grow our game. The elitists should not have the monopoly on the growth of a champion.
I am not naïve enough to think because I write a tennis article expressing frustration of some of the prohibitive costs of our game, that prices will suddenly drop. I am hoping though that the more people who are attracted to our game in other ways will help us all. There are other champions out there, whether it is the high school player, the local USTA champion or park tournament winner, who come from the public courts like Chrissie. Let’s find them.

Where have you gone Chris Evert? A tennis nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Lonnie Mitchel

Lonnie Mitchel is head men’s and women’s tennis coach at SUNY Oneonta. Lonnie was named an assistant coach to Team USA for the 2013 Maccabiah Games in Israel for the Grand Master Tennis Division. Lonnie may be reached by phone at (516) 414-7202 or e-mail lonniemitchel@yahoo.com.