Roger Federer may have retained his Wimbledon crown, but there is little evidence that he is paving the way for a new generation of Swiss tennis stars.
Latest figures indicate that the number of tennis players in Switzerland has been falling steadily over the past few years.
Federer first made a name for himself when he took the junior title at Wimbledon in 1998, and his rapid rise to the top of the ATP world rankings led to hopes of a Swiss tennis revival.
But a survey by the Mach consumer group found that the number of people playing the sport on a regular basis in Switzerland fell from 169,000 in 2001 to 125,000 in 2003 – a decline of 26 per cent.
The Swiss Tennis Association’s own figures suggest the sport is more popular than the Mach survey makes out, but they paint a similar picture: the number of players registered with the association stood at just over 184,600 in 2001.
Figures for 2005 are not yet available, but by the end of 2004 – nearly a year into Federer’s reign as the world number one – the number had fallen to just under 172,500.
Michael Hasler, an editor on Switzerland’s leading tennis magazine, Smash, denies the sport is falling out of favour with the public. But he concedes that Federer has failed to breathe much new life into the grass-roots game.
"It’s really hard to understand why the Federer effect is still missing. We have all been waiting for him to [make an impact]... maybe it’s just going to take a bit more time," he said.
"But don’t forget that you need a bit of money to play tennis, and there’s still this perception that it’s a bit of an old-fashioned sport."
Hasler rejects any suggestion that the Swiss are discarding tennis rackets in favour of skateboarding and beach volleyball – two sports which have enjoyed a surge in popularity over the past five years.
He believes the main explanation for the lack of new players is that Swiss tennis may have reached saturation point.
"Modern sports [like skateboarding] are actually facing the same problem. The bottom line is that we are a small country and we just don’t have enough people to play tennis as well as all these different sports," he told swissinfo.
The Swiss Tennis Association has taken matters into its own hands by launching a programme to encourage more children to take to the courts.
"Kidstennis", which was launched in April, aims to increase the number of registered young players by 15 per cent over the next five years.
"The main goal is to introduce children to tennis, get them interested in the game and get them playing competitively," said the association’s Sandra Kirchhofer.
Top players including Federer have thrown their weight behind the project. But Hasler doubts whether the world number one has what it takes to attract new talent to the sport.
"Roger is perhaps the best tennis player of all time. But he plays in a very calm and smart way and lacks [the charisma of] opponents like [Spaniard] Rafael Nadal or Andre Agassi, who are very aggressive and distinctive characters," he said.
Hasler points out that despite being the world number one, the 23-year-old from Basel is regularly thrashed by his rivals when it comes to making money from lucrative contracts and multi-million dollar product endorsements.
"Other players have negotiated better contracts... and I think one of the reasons is that he just isn’t trendy enough. Remember the early 1990s, when everyone wanted to dress like Agassi?
"These days the same kind of thing is happening with Nadal. He looks like a tennis hero, whereas Roger is more of a tennis artist and perfectionist."
Federer is regularly compared to Bjorn Borg, the legendary player who dominated men’s professional tennis during the 1970s and early 80s.
Hasler believes Federer could win more converts to the game by revamping his image, acting less like the ice-cool Swede and becoming more of a "gladiator and warrior like Nadal".
"[Having said all that], I do think he’s an amazing player and we are very proud of him.
"One thing is certain: there won’t be another Federer in Switzerland for at least ten years. What he has achieved is nothing short of miraculous."
swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh
Roger Federer began playing tennis at the age of eight.
He won the junior and doubles titles at Wimbledon in 1998.
The world number one has taken the men's title at the All-England Club for three consecutive years (2003, 2004 and 2005).
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