Klein’s Korner: Tennis (cards) anyone? – Flashback: Thinking about a day early in 1991 after moving to Dallas a few months earlier, I was in one of the First Base stores and local dealer Gervise Ford is telling Wayne Grove and myself that a new Tennis set is being produced. (Side note: Gervise is one of the best people I ever met in the hobby and helped one Dr. James Beckett become part of the burgeoning hobby way back in the day).
Now understand, I had been following tennis very closely and that was truly a great time here for the sport. America was going through a time where there was a new American member of the men’s top 10 each year (Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, Pete Sampras and later that year Jim Courier) and the women, while not always American, were very famous in their own right. Think of people such as Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Monica Seles and Gabriela Sabatini. If you are a certain age, you remember all of those players very fondly.
So we have name recognition of the best players on a pretty much global basis, a booming hobby and plenty of outlets to sell those cards. Yet my initial reaction, which was proved correct was, why are they doing this? This is not going to work and sure enough Net Pro was no longer producing cards within a year. A quick search of COMC shows only a few 1992 prototypes available and there was no sign of regular-issue cards on the site.
One of the most fascinating parts of this hobby is why tennis cards haven’t been more popular over the years. There are several reasons and they include:
1> The tour is a moving, world-wide target.
Other than the two to three week period when each of the majors take center court to use a terrible analogy, there is not really a central place to view these events. In January we have the Australian Open. The next major comes several months later in France on a slower clay surface which means, at least for men, someone you might not expect could win the title.
Only a couple of weeks after Roland Garros, the tennis world moves to Wimbledon and for many American fans this is truly the first of the two majors which matter. Having been there (while working for TenniStat in 1987), I can assure you this would be a wonderful time and place to sell tennis cards but your window here is about two weeks. With the addition of Henman’s Hill, more people are on the grounds throughout the tournament and if you think a product would sell I’d send whatever I could. The other good option for selling cards during this period is the incredibly long tradition of producing cards in Great Britain. Working at COMC has really opened up my eyes to the depth and passion of all the sets produced in England.
Then in the two week period around Labor Day, the U.S. Tennis Open is held in Queens, N.Y. Having worked this event as well, I can assure you the concession stands would again have been a great place to sell card sets. In fact this might be the best of the four majors to sell cards because of the location. Back in the days of the first card explosion, I finally realized how big sports card had gotten when looking over the bio of the then number one ranked Under-18 player Ivan Baron’s hobby was collecting baseball cards.
But this is about 12 weeks of the year and if you follow the tour you know that, other than these majors and a couple of other events (Indian Wells comes to mind), it truly is a wandering journey.
2> Lack of ranked American men’s players
The reason I laid out all these details is to show why, with the exception of the best known players, you really have to follow the sport to know about the players.
Yes, the average fan knows about Serena and Venus on the woman’s side and Federer, Nadal and Djokovic on the men’s side. A little quiz: how many U.S. men are in the top 20, and then the top 50. Answers. ZERO in top 20 and four in top 50 (John Isner, Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka, and Tennys Sandgren, the latter of which, you have to admit that’s a perfect name for a tennis player). I’d wager of those four the only one the average fan has heard of John Isner is because of that Wimbledon marathon match which went 71-69 in the fifth set.
So reason one is the diverse places, reason two is the lack of highly ranked American male tennis players, and reason three is:
3> Each player has to be signed individually to a contract.
That’s a lot of contracts for a company to through for the majority of players who are not in the top tier. This would be easier if there ended up being better agreements between the ATP and the WTA and they could work out contracts with manufacturers for their players to be in sets. Think about the sheer amount of time you need for these and the ROI probably would not be truly worth it.
As a long-time tennis fan who grew up watching the sport when the major networks and even PBS covered, I can assure you that, done correctly there is a role for tennis cards. And yes, the popularity of tennis would be helped with a return to more coverage on the broadcast networks. Right now, the sport is really niche and the world-wide popularity seems to be a bit faded.
A successful set appealing to the modern audience needs to be very carefully planned out. Personally, I believe the best type of sets for today’s world is something similar to the Topps 2019 International Hall of Fame set with a few more modern players sprinkled in. Using what I call the 20-25 year rule of people returning to the hobby most Hall of Famers would be remembered by that group and then those players can be a springboard to my set concept.
Personally, I would create a set with retired greats, add active winners of the 4+ majors (Including Indian Wells) and a few other people added for their fame. I think a 100-card set with autographs and a couple parallels would be a winner if issued every couple years. To bring back even more memories, create these sets in an old-school design.
These are some of my idea of tennis and we would all love to hear yours.