Gary Horvath is a USPTA master pro, founder and past president of the USA Professional Platform Tennis Association prior to its merger with USPTA, a certified coach with USA Volleyball and a long-standing member of the Wilson Advisory Staff. His experience as a pro has covered the spectrum from grassroots to college tennis. In addition, Gary Horvath has conducted extensive business/economic research that has largely supported Colorado's economic development efforts.

TCB Instinct Banner.png

Looking at Physical Activity and Tennis Through an Academic Lens

By Gary Horvath

Importance of Physical Activity

In March, stay-at-home mandates provided a stark reminder that physical activity was an essential part of our lives. Home gym equipment and bicycle sales went through the roof because tennis courts and other recreational facilities were locked up.

Many tennis players showed a new appreciation and enthusiasm for the sport when health authorities indicated it was “safe” to return to the courts. Anecdotal evidence suggests that more families are playing, there is less emphasis on competitive play, tennis professionals have added new activities, and more court time is dedicated to unstructured play.

This article looks at the continuum of physical activity to understand how these and other trends relate to the concepts of play, games, sports, and athletics (Exhibit I).

The Continuum of Physical Activity

This discussion of physical activity concepts is based on classroom lectures and discussions from Dr. Arnold Flath at Oregon State University.

Play is unstructured activity that is an essential part of learning to play tennis. Children instinctively know how to play – they do not need coaches, clinics, officials, scoreboards, or cheerleaders. Tell a five-year-old boy to play on the tennis court and he will run, jump, and skip. He may do somersaults, swing on the gate, and crawl on the benches. Along the way, he may take time to check out a flower on the edge of the court. Give a young girl a tennis ball and she will kick it, throw it, roll it; bounce it, get a drink, and look at a ladybug on the baseline. Play allows children to learn to move and maneuver their bodies. Play is physical activity in its purest form.

Games are activity with a minimal set of rules, equipment, and coaching. They may be competitive or cooperative and a scoreboard is optional. Tennis players may rally, play mini-tennis, or they may see how many consecutive balls they can hit. It is possible to have multiple winners when playing games. Participation ribbons are not a part of playing games. Players learn sports-specific skills when playing games. Games are a form of physical activity that should be fun!

Sports are structured physical activity. There are teams, coaches, officials, and a scoreboard. Sports are played by amateurs for the “love of the game” who are striving to do their best. Many organizations offer sports programs such as country clubs, schools, private clubs, and recreation facilities. Their philosophies vary, but they will obviously teach physical skills. In addition, players should learn life skills such as leadership, sportsmanship, goal setting, and teamwork. They must also understand how sports differs from athletics.

Athletics is competition that exists for the purpose of determining a winner. It involves a minimal set of rules, much like games. The difference is that athletic activity involves competition just short of open warfare. Athletics are professional sports that exist for entertainment purposes and financial gain. For that reason, televised athletic events have become an important tool for selling goods and services and increasing participation in sports.



Blurring the Lines Between Sports and Athletics

Over time the line between sports and athletics has become blurred.

Originally Olympic competition was for amateurs. The advent of state-supported athletic programs, corporate sponsorships, and the need to generate revenue caused the Olympics to become a professional competition.

College athletic programs have become either money pits or sources of revenue for universities. Football and men’s basketball programs are expected to generate enough revenue to support women’s and non-revenue sports. College athletic programs have become the minor leagues for many professional sports.

Many elite junior tennis academies or high-performance programs exist for junior players who aspire to become professional tennis players. Only a handful of players move to the professional ranks such as Tracy Austin, Jennifer Capriati, the Williams sisters, and Coco Gauff. Rules were established to protect junior players by restricting the number of professional events they could play.

The NFHS places a premium on having their member schools play sports for the “love of the game” yet, MaxPreps features an article listing the most expensive high school football stadiums in Texas. Do high school players understand they are playing for the “love of the sport” when they are playing in $80 million stadiums?


Violating the Integrity of Sports and Athletics

In addition to the blurring of lines between sports and athletics, there are many instances of stakeholders who have violated the integrity of these concepts.

Tennis players have an endless number of stories about matches where one person played for the “love of the sport” and the opponent played to “win at all costs”. Cheating and gamesmanship are disincentives for players to continue playing tennis.

On a more serious note, the U.S. Center for SafeSport was started to educate and protect all participants in USOPC sports from harassment, bullying, unnecessary injuries, and various forms of physical and sexual abuse.

Earlier this year, major sports leagues allowed athletes and sponsors to use their platform and television audiences as a place to express their social and political agendas. Many fans were offended by the introduction of personal politics into entertainment and they turned off their televisions.

The list goes on and on….

When stakeholders understand and abide by the basic concepts of play, games, sports, and athletics, they will have fewer self-inflicted problems to deal with.

Moving Forward

According to TIA/Sports Marketing Surveys, there are currently about 17.6 million American tennis players in the following categories:

  • 1.90 million junior players play tennis less than 10 times a year (casual/occasional)

  • 2.66 million junior players play tennis at least 10 times a year (core)

  • 6.61 million adults play tennis less than 10 times a year (casual/occasional)

  • 6.49 million adults play at least 10 times a year (core).


It is estimated that less than 0.025% of the above 17.6 million players could potentially participate in tennis at the athletic level on the continuum of physical activity.

At some point in our lives, we all aspire to be part of that group of elite players, even if it is just for a fleeting moment. The concepts of play, games, sports, and athletics make it easy to see that most of us are destined to spend our tennis careers playing for the love of the sport and focusing on fun, good sportsmanship, and camaraderie. Tennis is much more enjoyable when players come to the realization they are not going to be the next Maria Sharapova or Roger Federer.

There is hope for the future when we see younger players running, jumping, spinning their racquets, rolling and bouncing balls, crawling on the benches, and stopping to watch ladybugs on the baseline. Giving children an opportunity to play is an essential part of helping them learn to play tennis.

Players should be encouraged to play games as a way of learning and improving their skills. The game teaches the game and game-like activities are the preferred way to learn the sport. Playing games that teach us to play tennis should be fun!

Players have shown a tremendous passion in their return to tennis as they played with their families and enjoyed a wide array of structured and unstructured activities and instructional programs. If they remember they will not fill in for Maria or Roger, then their love of the sport can be sustained and there is a bright future for tennis.