By Jordan Schultz
The 1990s are remembered by many as a golden age of tennis: Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf together were responsible for one of the greatest eras in tennis history.
Men’s tennis continued to flourish over the past two decades thanks to Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Never before has the sport enjoyed such dominance from a trio of megastars. The Big Three took the runway laid by Agassi and Sampras and turned the Grand Slam circuit into their own personal trophy room. Since 2005, they’ve won 52 out of 61 Grand Slam tournaments. In fact, just five other players total have won a slam during that span.
As Graf’s career wound down in the late ‘90s, Venus and Serena Williams came on the scene as teenagers. Where Sampras and Agassi passed the torch to the Big Three in men’s tennis, Graf’s legacy was similarly carried on by the Williams sisters for the better part of the next two decades.
What made Venus and Serena an integral part of the sport wasn’t simply their dominant style of play and undeniable talent. They were also seen as the epitome of the American dream: Two sisters from the inner city making tennis feasible for all young women, especially those of color. Naturally, as their Grand Slam victories and record-shattering performances came in waves, so too came the opportunities.
The sisters quickly became the new faces of Nike, while showcasing vibrant and carefully-produced outfits that they had a hand in designing. It became clear through the Williams sisters and the Big Three that tennis had never been without better competition, more star power, or more personality.
Today’s players in both men’s and women’s tennis have benefited from their predecessors’ influence, and in turn, so have the fans. A new crop of young stars is starting to become known for many of the same qualities that fans revere in NBA stars: Outspoken personalities, incredible talent and a sense of fashion and culture that speak to the times.
A prime example of all three tenets is 16-year-old Coco Gauff, the wunderkind American destined to become the next face of the sport. With her massive groundstrokes, graceful athleticism and magnetic personality, Gauff is a marketing dream. She inked sizable endorsement deals with New Balance, Barilla and Head in 2018, earning upward of $1M last year. To her credit, she’s thinking big too, telling ESPN in 2017, “I want to be the greatest of all time.”
Gauff has also been outspoken on social issues and is not afraid to use her voice. Recently, she held a peaceful demonstration in her hometown Delray Beach, Florida, to advocate and “demand change” in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
In so many ways, Gauff represents the new-age athlete. Because she’s studied those who came before her, she understands what it means to have a platform and fanbase - and she’s using it in a way that resonates.
Gauff is in good company in the women’s game: Naomi Osaka has already been ranked No. 1 by the WTA and is the No. 2 earner in all of women’s sports behind Serena Williams. 18-year old Amanda Anisomova is the second-youngest player in the women’s top 100, and Bianca Andreescu made waves last year after her thrilling U.S. Open victory over Williams.
All four young stars are poised to have an impact on tennis for the next decade-plus. The 22-year-old Osaka, a two-time Grand Slam winner, has also been outspoken politically in a way that echoes the stature of the sports worlds’ elder statesmen. “I hate when random people say athletes shouldn’t get involved with politics and just entertain,” she tweeted. “Firstly, this is a human rights issue. Secondly, what gives you more right to speak than me?”
Similar to the WTA Tour, the influx of exciting stars on the ATP Tour cannot be overstated. Players like Stefanos Tsitsipas, Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev and Daniil Medvedev - all top ten-ranked - should soon become household names. This quartet possesses the immense skill and necessary pizazz to help elevate the game and captivate fans, with the power to take tennis viewership to another level.
Also of note are the young men’s stars who are no less outspoken than their female peers. Take 22-year-old Frances Tiafoe - the youngest American ATP title holder since Andy Roddick in 2002 - whose parents immigrated from Sierra Leone before he was born. “I think it is my duty to speak out but I also think it is everyone's duty to speak out,” Tiafoe tells The Boardroom. “Change happens with togetherness. Without togetherness, there is no change.”
Where tennis in the 80’s and 90’s was highly popular and engaging, it was still a sport that held a certain measure of gate-keeping. Today, those gates have been knocked down, and these young stars are both a product of the culture and a means of pushing that culture forward.
With young men like Tiafoe leading the charge, we see the next generation isn’t afraid to speak out and views its outspokenness as synonymous with both talent and platform. In this same measure, these young players see fashion and culture as a means of expression and personality. The result? A “cool factor,” that in turn lends itself back to new fans.
Take, for example, last year’s Wimbledon. The wealthy and the famous have always been courtside at the biggest matches, but the celebrities of old were quite often royals and high-profile actors. Last year’s crowd was far more diverse: Stars like Janelle Monae, Kendall Jenner, Tessa Thompson, Charli XCX, and Suki Waterhouse point to the exciting reality that tennis is attracting a younger, more diverse audience than ever before.
With all eyes currently on the return to live sports, each league is facing its own unique challenges. For tennis, one thing is a given: When the U.S. Open begins in August, there will be no fans in the stands. “I think tennis will be weird for the players without fans,” comments Frances Tiafoe. “On the flip side, I think viewership will be even higher because people just want to watch live sports. Hopefully, we can get non-tennis fans to tune in.”
From an “individual sport” perspective, tennis and golf have long lived in the same comparative universe, and it stands to reason that they’d have similar advantages in today’s sports landscape. This however, is another example of where tennis has the potential to separate itself. With golf, the “Tiger Woods factor” has carried the sport for over two decades.
No player in the PGA’s near century-long history has come within the vicinity of having such an impact on a global scale. Where Woods has had the same effect on golf as the Williams sisters did in tennis - breaking down the barriers of elitism, making the sport engaging and bringing in a host of new fans - that effort hasn’t translated into the same “next generation” result as tennis.
Golf lacks a larger-than-life personality to fill the massive void when Woods finally retires. Ratings plummeted during his multi-year hiatus, culminating in a 69 percent drop during the 2018 PGA Championship, according to Forbes. Despite some terrific young players on tour today, nobody possesses the gravitas and international appeal of Woods and his trademark Sunday Reds.
Tennis’s young stars, by contrast, are poised to carry the torch for the game, and they’ve already proven it in a short amount of time.
The sport has also worked hard to cultivate players on an amateur level. The ATP, for example, has modified its philosophy in recent years to relate and appeal to its next generation of players.
“They have both done campaigns totally focused on trying to engage youth better,” explains McEnroe. “The ATP calls it The Next Gen campaign. It’s a year-end event in Milan for under-21 players and has been very successful.”
To that point, feeling an authentic connection to the sport is everything, and that work needs to be done at a grassroots level. “We are already seeing a shift to growing grassroots tennis at the USTA under [USTA CEO] Mike Dowse’s leadership,” Billie Jean King tells us. “The more American players we have in the top of the professional rankings, the more young kids will aspire to be tennis champions.”
What was once deemed a “country club sport” has transitioned into a dynamic, personality-driven game that young people can gravitate toward. The game may have the Williams sisters and the Big Three to thank for that in large part, but it’s clear that the work done at a structural level has also made a difference.
“Beyond the players, tennis also is a lifetime sport and I think there is a strong connection because so many of our fans play the sport,” King says. “We may not have Roger’s backhand, but we sure love playing – and watching – tennis.”