With daily U.S. Open crowds far in excess of 50,000, it might be difficult to argue that tennis would be more popular if the sport's code of conduct were loosened to allow more displays of emotion and personality.
Unless, of course, you are John McEnroe. "There is no question, in our sport in a one-on-one game," the volcanic old champ said, "that people gravitate to players they can relate to on some level emotionally. That's why I think the game is on an upswing, the men's game in particular; you're seeing guys show their personality . . . "
In the post-McEnroe/Connors era, when the sparks don't fly nearly so often and spontaneous combustion is extremely rare, such impeccably behaved stars as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are global celebrities, admired and fabulously compensated. Tennis crowds have come to expect a certain self-control; when Ryan Harrison, the 19-year-old who could be providing a glimpse of resurgent American power, flung his racket in anger at the conclusion of his first-round loss, the Louis Armstrong Stadium fans booed.
Yet we live in a TMZ world, where the outrageous sells, and Andy Roddick contended, "There's a reason that 'Monday Night Raw' gets better ratings than we do."
Two weeks ago, in an Open tune-up in Cincinnati, Roddick smashed a racket, then swatted a ball into the stands, bringing a penalty point that cost him a game, prompting him to suggest there should be some leniency from the powers that be.
Tennis, he said after his first-round win at the Open, "is the only thing I know where you can break your own stuff and get penalized for it. If you take your shoe and throw it and break it, what happens to you? You're out of a shoe, but it doesn't affect anyone else."
The International Tennis Federation's code of conduct clearly states, in Article IV, that "players shall not violently, dangerously or with anger hit, kick or throw a tennis ball [or racket] within the precincts of the tournament site except in the reasonable pursuit of a point . . . " Furthermore, there is a more general "unsportsmanlike conduct" clause calling for good behavior at all times.
Federer fully endorsed the current state of affairs yesterday. "It's important," he said, "that we are good role models. Otherwise, it gets out of control again and people use too many things trying to win, which is unfair as well." Nadal recently espoused the same "example for the kids" reasoning to ESPN.com.
A 1997 Sports Illustrated profile of 14-time major tournament champion Pete Sampras, whose all-business deportment often is credited with counterbalancing the earlier rebellious strain among top players, noted how the young Sampras had been embarrassed watching McEnroe's meltdowns on television and resolved never to do the same.
Still, Roddick made a distinction between the kind of anarchy that raised its head during McEnroe's career and displays of frustration and temper, separating any show of disrespect from passion-of-the-moment fits.
"I just feel we're the only sport talking about this," Roddick said. "Let's put it this way: McEnroe is still getting endorsements and he's 87 years old. What does that tell you? Love it or hate it, but watch it."
Would McEnroe water down the code? "Of course," he said. "Is the Pope Catholic?"