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How Will Tennis Survive Without Its Superstars?

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Serena Williams have driven the money and interest in tennis for two decades. They are also, like all of us, getting older. What happens to the men’s and women’s games when they retire?

Efi Chalikopoulou

Roger Federer knows that tennis has a problem. “We like to battle a little bit within our sport, instead of maybe opening the horizon and battling other sports,” he recently admitted. After a year of talking as much about tour politics as the sport itself, it is perhaps unsurprising that the topic elicited a sigh from tennis’s unofficial statesman. “But it is what it is,” Federer continued. “At the end of the day, I still think things are moving in the right direction. Things are positive. We have good numbers, in terms of attendance, prize money. You name it, it’s all going up.”

Federer was speaking after a routine first-round match at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, the final significant tournament on the calendar before the U.S. Open. Despite its title, the tournament is held 25 miles north of the city in Mason, a town of 30,000 inhabitants and countless strip malls; its local Applebee’s has served as the international clubhouse. Maria Sharapova, one of the sport’s more candid stars, points out that Mason is an unlikely host for such a major tennis event: “It doesn’t feel real, some of it. It’s like The Simpsons.” Yet the tournament attracted 198,044 visitors this August, the second-largest attendance in its history.

By most metrics, tennis is booming. Prize money has risen dramatically in recent years at the Grand Slams and biggest men’s and women’s tournaments, driven by players banding together and demanding more from the biggest events. In 2011, the total U.S. Open prize money was $23,718,000; this year, the players are competing for $57,238,700. “I was making $10,000 first round. I’m making $50,000 now,” said longtime player and Madrid Open tournament director Feliciano López. So the increase was amazing.”

Audiences are growing too, and not just in Mason. In early July, Novak Djokovic’s victory over Federer in the Wimbledon final was viewed by 3.329 million viewers in the United States—ESPN’s second-highest tennis broadcast in history, after Federer’s victory against Andy Murray in 2012. In the United Kingdom, tennis smashed England’s dramatic Cricket World Cup triumph as the most-watched telecast of the day with a peak of 9.6 million viewers. The first week of U.S. Open ratings were up 33 percent over last year in the United States, thanks in part to a prime-time Saturday night face-off between rising star Coco Gauff and 21-year-old defending champion Naomi Osaka. The women’s game, at least, is starting to reap the rewards of its appealing young stars.

But on the men’s side, the boom is primarily driven by the same three players—Federer, Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal, or the Big 3, as they’re known in tennis—who have commanded the sport for over a decade. So far in 2019, 32-year-old Djokovic has won the Australian Open (his third Grand Slam victory in a row), and 33-year-old Nadal has won the French Open (his 12th title at Roland Garros). At Wimbledon, each of the three players predictably marched to the semifinals, where then-37-year-old Federer defeated Nadal, and then lost to Djokovic in the final. The U.S. Open has, thus far, been the exception to the rule, as Djokovic retired from injury in his fourth-round match against Stan Wawrinka, and Federer lost his quarterfinal match to Grigor Dimitrov, departing with a back injury after five grueling (or age-showing) sets. That leaves Rafael Nadal as the presumptive favorite, and the anxiety of tournament officials on full display.

The impact of the Big 3 is particularly visible on the regular ATP and WTA tournaments that don’t have the historic appeal of the Grand Slams. As recently as 2008, the ATP and WTA were essentially generating the same amount of money, with their respective tax returns marking the ATP’s revenue as $61.3m to the WTA’s $58.7m. The ATP have since edged ahead and, according to 2017 returns, brought in $147 million to the WTA’s $104 million. Name recognition is crucial, in tennis as in any other sport, and the Big 3 bring it to even local tournaments. Federer played a full clay season for the first time since 2015 this year; when he confirmed his attendance at the Rome Masters 1000, the tournament immediately doubled the prices of unsold tickets. Federer was greeted like the Pope by thick, delirious crowds when he finally arrived, which made it difficult for him to even reach his match court. In Dubai, the tournament director openly hoped that the draw would help the Swiss win the title. “This year, when Federer came [to Madrid] everybody was happy, expectations were so high. We broke the records,” said López. “As soon as you have these two guys playing, everything works.” The opposite can be true as well: After Federer lost at the U.S. Open, ticket resales for the men’s final reportedly dropped by as much as half.

As with Serena Williams, who serves as both the women’s tour GOAT and its international celebrity, the Big 3 will not be around forever. The nature of a solo sport like tennis is that its popularity is cyclical; as the sport’s ambassadors get older, its governing bodies are constantly looking for new players to follow and surpass them. One young player making waves this summer is Daniil Medvedev, a 23-year-old Russian who entered the U.S. Open with a no. 5 ranking. Perhaps you have already seen a clip of Medvedev taunting the U.S. Open crowds after his third-round victory (and the racket-smashing and towel-snatching it included). “I want all of you guys to know, when you go to sleep at night, I won because of you,” he said, stretching out both arms and beckoning more boos. Medvedev’s interview quickly spread across the internet, instant inspiration for petty meme-makers across the world. But the fleeting viral hype of a slam doesn’t necessarily reflect popularity, and the clip itself did not include any actual tennis.

In Cincinnati, the biggest men’s crowd of the tournament cheered raucously for Medvedev as he defeated Djokovic 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 under the lights in their semifinal. The next afternoon, after American Madison Keys won the women’s title, most spectators darted for the exit before the men’s final even began. Medvedev, the highest-ranked youngster in the world, sealed his first big title in a half-empty stadium. As the remaining crowd flitted for the exit after the final ball was struck, the emcee prepared for the trophy ceremony with an announcement that sounded more like a plea: “Please don’t go away!”

What happens when the legends finally retire? This is the question that players and coaches, tournament heads and TV programmers, casual fans and die-hards alike are grappling with. “Oh, wow,” said Judy Murray, mother of Andy Murray and accomplished coach, when asked that same question. “That would be massive. They’ve been around for so long. They’ve been dominant for so long. It would be a huge, huge blow to the men’s tour to lose them for so long.” Feliciano López agreed, pointing out the economic impact that the players have had on the sport. “Because of them, tennis got so much attention. Because of them, tennis got more sponsors, more money for the tournaments and for the players.” Maxim Yanchevsky, a producer for Eurosport Russia, echoed the concerns throughout the sport: “There will be a minute when Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal retire, and I’m sure that the interest will go down. It’s 100 percent. I’m not an expert, but it’s for sure.”

There is a difference between an attention dip and total extinction, as Guy Forget, Roland Garros tournament director and former player, points out. “It’s funny because I’m old enough that I’ve had those questions already,” he said, laughing. These crises seem to consume tennis fans whenever a popular generation of players begins to wane, Forget noted. “When I started playing, Björn Borg, McEnroe, and Connors were leading the game. And then Lendl came on. And I really was anxious … and here we are again.”

While it’s true that the tour has historically replenished itself, it’s also true that tennis is an establishment sport fighting for attention in a fractured media landscape. This was a risk even before the arrival of Roger Federer and his rivals: “Men’s tennis has Grand Slam winners like Thomas Johansson and Albert Costa, and good for them, but let’s be honest, for some people the Vienna Women’s Knitting Championships has more appeal,” wrote Rohit Brijnath of The Hindu in 2002. But the stakes are even higher now, with the digitalization of entertainment meaning that most sports, both actual and virtual, are all vying for a piece of the same pie. “Tennis is competing with so many other things now for everybody’s attention. Our competitors are all the other sports—especially team sports which are easier to get fans behind if they are supporting a team,” said Murray, a coach who spends much of her time traveling to different countries and teaching other coaches and children through grassroots lessons. “I think people have to work harder than ever before to bring people in and keep people in.”

After little change for many years, new initiatives like the Laver Cup, fast4 (a scoring format that shortens sets to four), the one-week Davis Cup, the Next Gen ATP Finals, and Tie Break Tens have sprung up with the aim of presenting a more digestible version of tennis to entice younger fans. When asked about the future of the game, Djokovic, who is president of ATP Player Council, listed these same talking points as if reading a Wikipedia article: “I’m sure that we will see some changes in the game itself, maybe scoring system, things like that. NextGen Finals, for example, is testing out new things.” Though Djokovic is by definition an old millennial himself, he fell back on the timeworn explanation. “The millennials, you know, their attention span is shorter and it’s different from generations before, so you have to adjust, I guess.” Still, Djokovic admits that the path he and his rivals are setting with be a difficult one to follow. “It seems like it’s going to be hard for anyone to kind of do something the same that the three of us did.”

Tennis journalists note how the shrinking newsrooms have impacted the landscape of tennis journalism; for many travelling journalists, the success of their national players dictate their careers and how much time they spend covering the sport. When Caroline Wozniacki lost in the third round, one question in her press conference stood out: “Do you feel sometimes you’re sorry for our media colleagues that follow you and have to go back home because once you lose, there’s not money enough to support them when they are abroad?” Federer, Nadal, and Serena remain the few players capable of piercing that patriotic lens and generating clicks and interest for audiences around the world. Their departures might take an entire generation of media coverage with them. “For me, I always thought that when Federer retires, it’s almost my point of retirement,” said veteran German journalist Jörg Allmeroth. “And it is, from the age point. It’s not a question to me, but for other people who are now 30 or 40—what will the sport be after that?”

Over the last few years, the ATP tour has shown a dedication, bordering on desperation, to nurturing its future leaders. Since 2017, the men’s tour has tirelessly marketed the aforementioned “#NextGen” campaign, and a talented and varied generation of players has emerged, led by Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Félix Auger-Aliassime. The campaign has been a clear success: Over the past year, each of the prominent young players have defeated Big 3 players across best-of-three sets at regular ATP events, and some of them are beginning to establish off-the-court recognition as well. The biggest victory so far for the #NextGen came at this year’s Australian Open, when the 21-year-old Greek Tsitsipas defeated Roger Federer in the fourth round. As the crowd saluted a new star, Tsitsipas, a proud YouTuber, had one message: “Guys, if you haven’t subscribed, please subscribe!” Tsitsipas started the tournament with a four-figure subscriber count, and ended it with over 100,000. His philosophical Instagram account, notable for its variety of copy-and-pasted quotes, has also made him something of a tennis meme.

For many players, the young generation’s popularity will rest on whether they can harness the older generation’s popularity by beating them. “It’s very important for them to beat these three and then get to the top, instead of getting to the top when they have naturally faded,” said David Avakian, a Dutch tennis journalist for Eurosport. Certainly, Federer’s growing popularity in his earlier days as a champion was partially rooted in his victory against Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001. This season, the value of leapfrogging the old generation has been particularly clear on the women’s side. At the French Open in June, then-17-year-old Amanda Anisimova thoroughly defeated defending champion Simona Halep en route to the semifinal. Anisimova narrowly missed out on winning the French Open, a stunning achievement, but the coverage and interest in her run was a miniscule fraction of what Coco Gauff received for beating 39-year-old Venus Williams, ranked 44th, in the first round of Wimbledon.

Unfortunately for the younger players, and for the ATP officials who are banking on their ascendance, the summer has proven something of a disaster for the most hyped #NextGen players. After a promising start in 2019, Tsitsipas bombed out of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the first round. After Nadal withdrew from Cincinnati, 22-year-old Zverev—already the 26th highest-paid male tennis player in history, with $17.6 million in prize money—headlined the first Wednesday of the tournament, where he lost to a sparse crowd on Center court. He made it to the fourth round at the U.S. Open before self-destructing against Diego Schwartzman on Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Zverev is a perennial Next Big Thing who has a hard time keeping fans; when he played his home court of Hamburg earlier this summer, he attracted around 7,000 people to the 13,200-seater stadium. The rising prize money has had an unintended effect: Players now feel they can demand higher appearance fees from the lower-level ATP 500 and 250 events. Zverev hadn’t competed in Hamburg since 2016, partly because he is notorious for asking for vast six-figure sums, often quoted at $400K, despite his limited appeal. It remains to be seen whether he will be worth the money he earns. “People were happy to see him back and see him play and the atmosphere was good,” explains Björn Jensen of national German newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt. But the shadow of the Big 3 looms in terms of personality, too. “There’s always a lot of people who say, Hmmm, he’s rude, and we don’t really like him. Look at Federer, he’s a gentleman and this player isn’t.”

In the end, it has been two younger players with minimal hype who have broken through at the U.S. Open. Matteo Berrettini and Medvedev, both 23, edged past Gael Monfils and Stan Wawrinka, respectively, to reach the men’s semifinals for the first time in their careers. Medvedev, who dutifully apologized to the crowd during his post-match interview, has a realistic path to the final, and an off-court notoriety that has exposed him to the world. But even if Medvedev or Berrettini walk away with the title, there is still the shadow of the Big 3 looming—and no guarantee that anyone will be able to fill the hole they’ll leave behind.

Women’s tennis is a few generations removed from its own golden era, when the Williams sisters competed against the likes of Justine Henin and Martina Hingis, as all camera lenses focused on Anna Kournikova, and everyone hated each other. As Serena Williams has reduced her playing time dramatically in recent years, the sport has already been forced to adapt. If the men’s game is on the brink of losing its legacy stars, the women’s tour is going through its generational shift in real time. The WTA is currently a spectacle of supreme depth, but with very few players capable of stamping their authority at the top. It has made for quite a free-for-all; nine different players have won Grand Slams since the beginning of 2017.

As the WTA searched for a new path, the explosive success of Chinese two-time slam champion Li Na has provided some direction. According to the WTA, Li’s victory in the 2011 French Open women’s singles final was watched by 116 million viewers in China, and her transcendent success has boosted the number of tennis fans in China from about 2 million to more than 20 million. In 2014, the year she would eventually retire, a large WTA event was opened in her hometown of Wuhan. Even though there are now three U.S. players—Serena Williams, Madison Keys, and Sloane Stephens—in the top 10, China now hosts as many events as the United States. Earlier in the year, Li Na was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

“In 2008, we had two tournaments in China. Now we have nine, with every tournament represented in China,” said Fabrice Chouquet, managing director Asia-Pacific of the WTA.

The scale of the events are enormous—large, hulking stadiums built in short periods, funded by major sponsors and local governments desperate to announce themselves internationally, delivered with an efficiency that U.S. events cannot match. This year, the flagship year-end WTA Finals, which pits the top eight players against each other, moves to Shenzhen for 10 years in a deal said to be worth around $1 billion. The winner’s prize money will be the highest in tennis this year across both tours, with the total pot $14 million compared to the London ATP Finals’ $8.5 million.

At Wimbledon, almost by accident, the WTA stumbled upon the type of transcendent American star that both tours have tried to create for years. The frenzy behind 15-year-old Coco Gauff has only intensified this summer as everyone bargains for a piece of the pie. The USTA ignored the WTA’s age-eligibility rules, aimed at keeping its youngsters fresh and safe, and handed Gauff a main-draw wild card at the U.S. Open. At the Washington Citi Open in July, Gauff was billed as a headliner and was signing autographs before enough players had withdrawn for her to even enter the qualifying draw. Her presence broke the record qualifying crowd for an event that has spanned 51 years. Then, because Gauff was unable to compete in any other top-level event before the U.S. Open, the Winston-Salem Open ATP event decided for the first time in its history to hold a women’s exhibition between Gauff and world no. 2 Ashleigh Barty. The world no. 140 was the headliner.

The frenzy continued on Saturday night in Flushing Meadows, as the U.S. Open hosted perhaps the most anticipated matchup of the year involving anyone under the age of 30. Gauff was scheduled to play world no. 1 Naomi Osaka, a two-time Grand Slam champion at the age of 21, and one of the first superstars that tennis has created in a decade. Osaka is already, according to Forbes, the second highest-earning female athlete in the world behind Serena Williams, and SportsPro named her the most marketable athlete in the world. The third-round match was also narratively significant for Osaka: A year ago, she defeated Serena Williams on Arthur Ashe in a now-infamous final, when Williams’s dispute with the chair umpire (and the crowd’s ferocious support of the all-time great) overshadowed Osaka’s stunning victory. Once again, the crowd would be pulling for her beloved opponent. Suddenly, in primetime at the U.S. Open, there were two brand-name—and brand-new—tennis celebrities playing for history.

Since Wimbledon, every single Gauff match has been the most viewed of the day, and the same was true of her 6-3, 6-0 loss to Osaka. But the match will be remembered for the emotional on-court interview afterwards, in which 21-year-old Osaka convinced 15-year-old Gauff to stay and thank the crowd. Both Gauff and Osaka (and a decent portion of the audience) teared up; both offered nothing but encouragement to the other. “Great match @CocoGauff and @Naomi_Osaka_ the future of the tennis is in great hands,” tweeted Kobe Bryant.

Ahead of the U.S. Open, Gauff’s arrival was recounted by a series of magazine features, from Teen Vogue to Hypebeast. The title of her feature in The Undefeated particularly stood out: “The Girl Who Would Be GOAT.” The sentence says little about the potential of Gauff, who is still extremely green and may eventually suffer from the pressure of high expectations like so many stars before her. But there is a desperation, from within the sport and out, to find a new, true heir to the long-occupied thrones. “I know that you guys are kind of coming at her with love,” said Naomi Osaka to the press after their match. “But I feel like the amount of media on her right now is kind of insane for her age. I just want her to, like, take care of herself.” Will tennis—its tournaments, its journalists, its fans—let her?

Tumaini Carayol is a sports writer for The Guardian who specializes in tennis. He lives in London, England.

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