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    After the Grand Slams, Tennis Plots Its Growth Plan

    For nearly two decades, a small network based in Southern California called the Tennis Channel has attempted to become the hub of the sport in the United States. This month, it got one step closer, wrapping up a deal that will make it the television home of nearly every major men’s and women’s tennis event other than the Grand Slams.Tennis Channel’s deal to control the rights to so many high-profile tournaments is a coup for the growing network, a unit of the Sinclair Broadcast Group. It is also a bet, and some would say a risky one, that shifting top tennis matches from the sports behemoth ESPN is good for the growth of tennis and a sign that the sport’s future in the United States may lie largely with its most loyal followers.With the biggest stars the game has produced — Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams — getting closer to the end of their playing days without any easy or obvious replacements, tennis is heading toward a pivot point. At a crucial time, when tennis would appear to need to reach a broader audience of potential new fans, some of its high-profile events may only be seen by core followers who are already familiar with the unique talents of modern pros.“These players have more athleticism, stamina, power and guts than anyone,” said Arlen Kantarian, who led the United States Tennis Association from 2000 to 2008. “The core fan base, the people who attend live matches get that, but how do you capture the others?”That question is especially pressing now. The French Open ended Sunday with a dominant win by Nadal over Djokovic, and the United States Open finished with thrilling finals last month won by Dominic Thiem and Naomi Osaka. But as coronavirus infection rates rise across Europe and North America, the schedule for the coming months is up in the air. The sport endured a five-month layoff and the cancellation of Wimbledon, its most renowned event, as well as several other top tournaments, including the fall swing through Asia. The U.S. and French Opens took place in mostly empty stadiums, costing those tennis federations more than $300 million combined.The shift in strategy represents a wider issue for sports, perhaps with the exception of the N.F.L. in the United States — is the best path to growth finding new fans or urging loyal ones to be more fervent and passionate?On the bright side, tennis appears to have a solid and consistent foundation of fans in the United States. Rich Luker, who runs the SSRS Luker on Trends Sports Poll, which has been tracking sports tastes for 25 years, said interest in tennis had held steady the past two decades, even as interest in sports had broadly declined.“Tennis is healthy,” Luker said in an interview. “Being flat is good if nearly everything around you is going down.”Since 2001, about 30 percent of Americans age 12 and older have described themselves as interested in tennis to varying degrees. On average, about 5 percent of those polled described themselves as “very interested” in the sport.It is also the rare sport that women watch in equal or greater numbers than men and with significant parity in the players they watch. Women watch men, men watch women, and men and women play in many of the same major events, and sometimes compete together in mixed doubles.And yet with fierce competition from other sports and from the seemingly endless options for entertainment through streaming and other services, no one in tennis believes standing still is an option.“If you don’t grow, you are going backward,” said Micky Lawler, president of the Women’s Tennis Association, which organizes the women’s pro tour. The WTA’s events moved to the Tennis Channel two years ago. “We have to grow.”Doing that with a far more limited presence on ESPN represents both a new challenge and a shift in strategy for tennis leaders, who grew frustrated with being the small fish in the ESPN ocean, except during the Grand Slams.In recent years, ESPN determined that televising the next tier of tennis tournaments, including events near Palm Springs and in Miami, Cincinnati and Canada, did not fit with its focus on the biggest stages in sports, according to a person familiar with the network’s strategy who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to harm the network’s relationships with tennis officials. Carrying the non-Slam tournaments was also conflicting with other sports that garnered larger audiences. A long tennis match could cut into college basketball or even a Little League World Series game, or vice versa.That does not happen on a network solely dedicated to tennis, but there are significant trade-offs.ESPN is available in more than 80 million cable television households, and more than eight million subscribe to its streaming service. Tennis Channel became widely available only in 2016, when Sinclair acquired the network. It is now available in 60 million homes. It, too, offers a streaming subscription, but does not release figures for it. Also, through coverage on “SportsCenter” and on its website, and plugs during other sporting events, ESPN can deliver far-reaching promotional opportunities that a specialized network like the Tennis Channel struggles to match. ESPN tends to give more editorial exposure to sports and events it televises.Tennis officials say fighting for airtime on ESPN and hoping a college football fan will stumble into fandom of Stefanos Tsitsipas, the rising star from Greece, represents an outdated understanding of how and why people, especially young people, consume media and follow sports. Also, the indeterminate length of matches and a disjointed global schedule, with tournaments taking place at random hours, all over the world, every day for 11 months, make the sport a better fit for a singular media home.“You don’t really have a chance to grow a sport if you are just dropping a few matches on a multisport channel,” said Ken Solomon, Tennis Channel’s chief executive. “Someone can see a good match, but then they don’t know when or where they are going to get another one.”Lew Sherr, the chief revenue officer of the United States Tennis Association, said tennis fans would now know exactly where to find the sport.“We like the simplicity,” Sherr said.Also, Sinclair controls more than 20 regional sports networks, which will televise some tennis matches and can promote tournaments Tennis Channel will carry to fans tuning in to watch their local baseball or basketball team.But the key, Solomon said, is to create demand for a sport with features about players and events rather than simply televising tournaments, and a network like ESPN does not have the time to tell the story of a tennis season that unfolds over 11 months.And it’s through those stories about players and their journeys that the sport will expand, according to Andrea Gaudenzi, the former Italian professional who now leads the Association of Tennis Professionals, which represents the men’s tour.Gaudenzi came to tennis following a traditional route. An uncle founded a club. His father and grandfather played the game. He watched tournaments on free-to-air television growing up.Now, he said, a child is far more likely to be introduced to tennis by seeing snippets of an interview or videos that players post on social media or by watching a tennis documentary.Gaudenzi said he never had much interest in the N.B.A. Then he watched “The Last Dance,” the ESPN documentary on Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. Now he is very interested in the N.B.A.The next step for tennis, he said, is getting the players to buy into the strategy by opening up more about their lives off the court, then sharing those interviews and video on their social media channels to attract people who may never have picked up a racket or bought a ticket to a tournament.“You entice them and engage them and maybe they end up watching a match,” Gaudenzi said.Now, the world just needs to solve its larger problem, the coronavirus pandemic itself. Then everyone involved in the sport will know exactly when and where that match will be. More

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    For Novak Djokovic, Another Well-Meaning Effort Goes Off the Rails

    Novak Djokovic may look back on these last months as some of the most dreadful in his career, a series of moments that appeared to be filled with opportunity but fizzled in spectacular fashion.On Sunday, his troubled year brought the challenge of the greatest clay-court player the game has known, and Djokovic flopped dramatically again as he lost to Rafael Nadal, the 13-time French Open champion, 6-0, 6-2, 7-5.To be fair, there is no shame in losing to Nadal at Roland Garros. Nadal is now 100-2 on the red clay in Paris. But Djokovic, who won the Italian Open on clay in Rome last month and tore through his early matches at Roland Garros, was supposed to have an opening.The weather was cool for the autumn version of this event, which is usually played in late spring. That slowed the ball down and took one of Nadal’s favorite weapons — his absurdly high-bouncing forehand — out of his arsenal. A new, heavier ball was supposed to make life even harder for Nadal and his power game, and favor Djokovic’s ability to find the sharpest angles for his winners. Midday rain in Paris forced organizers to close the roof, another supposed advantage for Djokovic.And then, like so many other times in this strange year, it all went south so quickly for Djokovic, a 17-time Grand Slam champion who had not lost a match he had completed in 2020.He struggled with his serve and failed to win a game in the first set. It was more of the same in the second, and his errors began to pile up. Seemingly easy forehands whipped into the net. Too many of his usually lethal backhands sailed wide.And while Djokovic battled to extend the match in the third set, the final moments made clear how inevitable the result had been. Djokovic double-faulted to give Nadal the break that allowed him to serve for the third set at 6-5. A sloppy forehand gave Nadal match point, and then Djokovic barely moved on the ace that ended the tournament.“I was not so pleased,” Djokovic said of the way things turned out.That’s the way things have gone for some months now for Djokovic, ever since he started the year with a crushing win over Dominic Thiem in the Australian Open final for his 17th Grand Slam title. What looked like another year of dominance for the world No. 1 came to a halt in March when the spreading coronavirus forced sports to shut down.In the spring, during the lockdown in Europe, Djokovic posted a series of conversations with his friend Chervin Jafarieh, who serves as a kind of New Age guru for the tennis star. The conversations were meant to help people add meaning and purpose to their lives, but Djokovic’s bizarre talk about the human body being able to make polluted water healthy through prayer and belief overwhelmed whatever good intentions he might have had.In June, he began the Adria Tour, which was supposed to be a series of tournaments that would bring tennis out of its hiatus. But it became a kind of superspreading event, with Djokovic and several other marquee players being infected with the coronavirus. The tour was canceled after significant backlash for parties and other events that had few pandemic precautions.Then, his game on cruise control at the United States Open in September with none of his main rivals in the draw, Djokovic lost his temper and swatted a ball that hit a line judge in the throat. Tournament officials, bound by the rules, disqualified him.Then came Sunday in Paris.“I was thinking the conditions were more favorable to me,” he said.If that was the case, someone forgot to tell Nadal, who blistered through the first set and had Djokovic on his heels in a way he rarely finds himself. Tied at 1-1 in the second set and serving at 0-15, Djokovic watched Nadal pummel a backhand passing shot down the line. It passed just a few feet from where he was standing. His head dropped. His eyes fell to the red clay, his spirit broken.“I was completely overplayed,” he said.It is possible that Djokovic lost the French Open two days before he took the court against Nadal.On Friday, Djokovic held a two-sets-to-none lead over Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semifinals. He failed to convert a match point in the third set, and the match stretched to five sets over a total of four hours. That is not a good way to prepare to play Nadal at the French Open, especially after Djokovic battled stiffness in his neck and back earlier in the tournament.After the loss on Sunday, Djokovic tried to be philosophical. He was beaten by a better player, someone who has proved nearly impossible to beat at this tournament. Still, he made 52 unforced errors compared with 14 for Nadal.He spoke as someone who expects he will have many more chances, and at 33, he probably will. Some will go his way, and some will blow up in his face. Even the best tennis player loses 45 percent of the points he plays. Perfection will always be elusive. The key for Djokovic moving forward will be whether he can limit his unforced errors, both on the court and off it.“I have my flaws, as anybody else,” he said Sunday evening in Paris. “In the greatest defeats you learn the greatest lessons, as a tennis player and a person as well.” More

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    Iga Swiatek Steamrolls Sofia Kenin to Win the French Open

    PARIS — Iga Swiatek, an unseeded teenager from Poland, won her first tour title at the French Open on Saturday with a 6-4, 6-1 defeat of Sofia Kenin, the reigning Australian Open champion and No. 4 seed at Roland Garros.Swiatek, 19, the youngest woman to reach the French Open final since 18-year-old Kim Clijsters in 2001, became the first man or woman from Poland to win a Grand Slam singles title. She entered the tournament with a No. 54 world ranking, a recently acquired high-school diploma and a vague plan to test her game on the WTA Tour for what she described as a “gap year” before deciding whether she wanted to continue her education at a university.University, it appears, will have to wait.During her coronation at Roland Garros, Swiatek did not drop a set, befuddling the likes of the women’s world No. 1 and former champion Simona Halep, whom she dispatched in the round of 16, with her powerful forehand and angled groundstrokes. She lost only 28 games the entire tournament, and no more than five games in any match.In the final, Swiatek took Kenin’s intensity and raised her a level, pounding 25 winners against 17 unforced errors. She wasn’t completely impervious to nerves, squandering one set point while serving 5-3 in the first with a netted backhand on her way to being broken. But she broke Kenin back to secure the first set in 48 minutes.Kenin, 21, had played all week with her left leg taped, with the tape, like the shadows from the low-hanging autumn sun — creeping across more of her upper leg as the tournament went on. With Swiatek leading by 2-1 and on serve in the second set, Kenin requested a medical timeout and left the court to have her leg treated.Kenin returned to the court with her leg heavily wrapped and Swiatek, sensing her opening, reeled off the final four games in rapid-fire fashion to close out the second set in 31 minutes.Kenin finished with 10 winners and 23 unforced errors. She finished this disjointed Slam season with a 16-2 match record, with a fourth-round exit in the United States Open between her bookended trips to the final.Swiatek, who bounced around the court as if she had pogo sticks for legs, didn’t exactly come from nowhere; in 2018, she won the Wimbledon junior singles title and the French Open junior doubles title. But her rise here left even her head spinning.“I don’t know what’s going on,” she said during an on-court interview. Laughing, she continued, “I’m so happy.”Swiatek added, “I’m just overwhelmed.” More