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2016 Wimbledon

Dear Tennis, attitude is a good thing

Why Dustin Brown and Nick Kyrgios should be the future of tennis, not its problem children

Ask a die-hard American tennis fan to describe the sport in one word and you might hear things like “grace” or “tradition.”

“Lit” is unlikely to be among the descriptions and that’s a problem.

Last year, the most-watched match in the United States was a quarterfinal in the U.S. Open featuring a now 36-year-old Venus Williams vs. her soon-to-be 35-year-old sister, Serena Williams. No knock on them — they’ve been holding it down for 15 years — but it’s difficult to plan for the future when the biggest draws are nearing retirement and there’s nothing in the pipeline. Think about it: Which major sport doesn’t have a big name in his or her 20s? Not necessarily a champion, but a name.

A personality.

Some stank.

This would be chief among the reasons why, over the past 30 years, football has strengthened its hold as the country’s most-popular sport and tennis has gone from a popular culture touchstone to television viewership shoulder shrug. How bad have things gotten? Well, in Nielsen’s 2015 The Year in Sports Media Report, tennis is listed in the “Other Sports Programming” section after post-Tiger Woods golf and the withering NASCAR.

Like baseball, tennis is suffocating from tradition. And while the 23-year-old Washington Nationals star outfielder Bryce Harper is openly questioning some of the antiquated aspects of his sport that he sees as hindering its appeal, there doesn’t appear to be a tennis counterpart. You know, someone in the spotlight for suggesting it’s boring watching every player on every court essentially wearing the same thing for two weeks in London.

However on Friday, for a little more than two hours stretched across multiple rain delays on Court 2, we saw a Wimbledon match in Technicolor.

While tennis players Nick Kyrgios and Dustin Brown dressed the same as everyone else, how they looked and played did not. Their darker complexion stands out. The swagger of their game is undeniable. The funk they bring is why you could not find a spot within the 2,100-seat capacity of Court 2 to watch them play. It is why the male and female players waiting for their matches were watching them in the locker room. It is why the tournament tweeted a clip of Brown hitting a between-the-legs dropshot asking: “Is that humanly possible?

Kyrgios won the epic match in five sets, but the crowd won the prize by just witnessing the shotmaking, athleticism and showmanship.

“I came to the net and I thought I would have the easy volley and ended up hitting the net cord and coming towards my body,” Brown said after the match. “Obviously, there is many ways I can try and do it. For me in that moment, the same as his match against [Radek] Stepanek where the ball came to him and he decided to hit it through legs, I did the same. I hit a winner.”

That’s right, he admitted there were multiple options in that moment but he decided to put some stank on it. And then he made mention that Kyrgios did something similar in an earlier match. The shot was so dope, Kyrgios brought it up in the press conference after the match.

Q: What was the most ridiculous shot Dustin hit today, in your opinion?

A: He hit one through-the-legs dropshot, made me feel horrendous. He was hitting volleys that are spinning back over. There were times out there where you literally don’t want to play. You just want to put the racket down.

Why American interest in tennis is waning has a lot do with this second-round match. Two players facing off with stank should not be this rare but it is. So while audiences of other sports get to see Golden State Warrior Stephen Curry shimmy, fans of other sports seek out jerseys and apparel companies constantly roll out new gear, tennis has morphed from Andre Agassi’s “Image is Everything” to racket wallflowers.

Why has American tennis faded from a spotlight that actively seeks people with no discernible talent for the sole purpose of putting them in the spotlight?

Well first, we’re still a bit of a sexist nation. Women are not paid as much as men for equal work, there is a double standard for what is considered age-appropriate sexiness, and, if an American man was kicking the world’s ass with as much regularity as Venus and Serena Williams, we wouldn’t even be having this “tennis in decline” conversation in the first place. Cyclist Lance Armstrong got us to care about the Tour de France for heaven’s sake. That’s the power of the penis.

But the other reason has to do with the staunch tradition of the sport that makes it tough to sell nowadays. Kyrgios (who is Greek and Malaysian) was penalized during his match with Brown for cursing as if an elementary school teacher was in the chair. Can you imagine any other sport we deem important penalizing a player for using foul language in the heat of competition, let alone making the style of his hair a major point of emphasis the way commentators talked about Kyrgios for having lines cut into his hair? The part-Jamaican, part-German Brown, who, at 31, has spent the bulk of his career on the lower-tier ATP Challenger circuit, has not won a single ATP tournament and yet every match I’ve been to in which he played at Wimbledon he has drawn a crowd. He beat former No. 1 Rafael Nadal twice. He took out former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt here in 2013. He’s not just flash. But the flash is not bad. He, and Kyrgios, France’s Gael Monfils, a handful of others play a brand of flashy “And-1” tennis that excites fans even if it could rub coaches the wrong way.

“My coach, Scott Wittenberg, and previous coach, Kim Wittenberg, are brothers and both [have] known me since I was 5,” Brown said. “They have known me almost all my life so it’s a good, easy relationship.”

However the 21-year-old Australian Kyrgios — who grew up playing basketball, is a Boston Celtics fan and counts NBA players Kevin Garnett and LeBron James among his sport influences — has struggled with coaches because of play and attitude. Admittedly, some of his antics can be considered brash in tennis circles, but in the world of the NFL or NBA, they wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. And by the way, the NFL and NBA own three of the top-five, most-watched television programs this year.

A year ago, Australian Olympic gold medalist Dawn Fraser, in response to the antics of Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic (whose father is Croatian and mother is Bosnian), said they “should be setting a better example for the younger generation” and that if they don’t like it, “go back to where their fathers or parents came from.”

Kyrgios clapped back via Facebook saying, “Throwing a racket, brat. Debating the rules, disrespectful. Frustrated when competing, spoilt. Showing emotion, arrogant. Blatant racist, Australian legend.”

Not since perhaps Andy Roddick has American tennis had a young player register away from the court, and he is probably the last player who would have posted something like that. And that is a problem. The world is changing. This country is changing and this beautiful game, unfortunately, has not kept up which is why it is being left behind. America needs the kind of “oh no he didn’t” stank we witnessed on Court 2 to make us care again. Until then, being called a niche sport might eventually sound like an upgrade.

LZ Granderson is a contributor to ABC, SportsNation and a Senior writer for The Undefeated. LZ's work has been recognized by the Online News Association, Lone Star Emmy, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communication and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association which named him Journalist of the Year in 2011. Be sure to catch him on “Mornings with Keyshawn, Jorge and LZ.”