I was a kid when I first saw Andre Agassi play. He was seven years older than me. He had long hair, denim tennis shorts, and girls throwing themselves at him. But even more exciting to me, he played tennis like a rockstar. He threw himself into his shots and his matches. He wasn't the "Rebel" Canon made him out to be, of course -- he always displayed respect for the game, and improvised on the fundamentals etched into the sport's history. But even then I understood why he was a marketer's dream. He infused youthful, brash life into a sport with cultural stigmas tied to class, age, and race. Today, Agassi drives a minivan, tousles the hair of his four-year-old son, and shares insightful comments with the press about world issues. And so be it. He's allowed. He's an adult now. Yet what I find so hilarious about the currently manic pop-culture tennis marketing machine that began to churn ever slow slowly the day Agassi hit the courts at 15 is that it never inspired a decent youth magazine about the sport.
Tennis magazine, for its part, has always had to cater to adult players -- many of whom make lots of money. It never had a chance to flaunt US Weekly-style tabloidism (although, please, Chris Evert, it wouldn't kill you to find a few young John McPhees and David Foster Wallaces, and let them write some risky, long-form narratives to add to the instructional copy and SI-style tournament reports). But now, in the wake of Anna Kournikova's oh-so-thriving modeling career, and primed to welcome Maria "Powershot" Sharapova's move from digital cameras to sexy cellphones and her own Motorola Web world, here's Smash: Tennis Magazine's shoddy attempt at a Hollywoodified youth culture mag, rife with soundbite interviews with the likes of the humble Andy Roddick (a schmucky role model without Agassi's gravitas), a fashion spread forcibly tied to the popularity of MTV's reality teen hit "Laguna Beach," and a page on the coolest new sports-friendly MP3 players. Not a bad idea, perhaps. Except that what the magazine ought to realize is that kids hunt for (and smell) quality even better than adults. No, they're not looking for self-referential tennis essays written by postmodern novelists. But what they will want are fun features that do more than tediously repeat press releases, kiss players' asses, and simply serve as yet another way for tennis marketers to ram more accessories, clothes, and gadgets down the throats of young people with disposable incomes. Tennis, the marketing community is betting, is the next NBA -- the next sport to combine youth and Hollywood-fueled pop culture in a financially explosive way. But hasn't that always been the case? Isn't that what marketers were hoping when a lion-maned Agassi ripped his shirts off after tournament wins and threw them to starstruck teenagers? If you're reading, Ms. Evert, why not just set out to make a good magazine for kids with actual stories and news that they haven't read (because I'm sure they've never heard of year-old MP3 players), and see what happens. You never know: Your readers might actually take to tennis because it's, you know, awesome.