The ‘Big Four’ of Murray, Djokovic, Federer and Nadal. The domination of Venus and Serena. Our very own home-grown talent seeing in the New Year as world number one. It is very hard not to view these times as the golden era for tennis. As these gifted players have helped to increase the popularity of the sport in the modern era, ticket sales have risen dramatically, major broadcasting contracts have been re-negotiated, sponsorship deals have augmented, and prize money has escalated. Yet in commercialisation’s rapid propagation of the sport’s financial beneficence, professionalism and popularity, has the future of tennis in fact become corrupted by clear negligence toward genuine player development, in its obsessive, global pursuit of increased marketability and profitability?
Federer and Nadal have passed on their long-held batons of superiority to Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, both of whom will be on the wrong side of 30 the next time they face each other at the ATP’s curtain call event in London in November 2017. Serena Williams is approaching the end of her illustrious career as the relatively unrivalled tour de force in women’s tennis. Looking down at the rest of the seeded players on the Men’s and Women’s Tour, it is a struggle to locate any player that can even lace the boots of their predecessors, never mind replicate their talent and successes. For many, the Australian teenager Nick Kyrgios was tipped as the man to hail this new era of male tennis when the old guard chose to hang their boots. There is still ample time for Kyrgios to leave his mark in the tennis world. But at 21, and with a number of disciplinary meetings, fines and bans to his name, the turnaround must take place soon. At the same age, Rafael Nadal had won his third French Open.
The problem seems to lie in the fact that, in tennis’ modern age, players are rewarded for their misdemeanours. They are rewarded for standing out, for promoting their own brand, for drawing media attention. They are not rewarded for their sporting efforts or achievements. Of course, tournament prize money still remains an attractive pull for many players; added to that, there also undoubtedly remain a great number of professional players who do play their sport out of a genuine love for the game and a desire to succeed at the highest level. Yet in an arena in which the value of endorsements and sponsorships outweigh the financial reward of winning a tournament, it is no wonder that the current crop of young tennis players lack the desire to develop their talents on the court. Kyrgios was rewarded for his poor professionalism with an endorsement deal with Nike. Commercial appeal is simply more profitable than sporting ability and success. Endorsements can aid players, but can also distract them from achieving their potential. Too much off-court focus reduces on-court concentration. Of course, the very best, like Federer and Djokovic, can balance both responsibilities. Yet for this previous generation of stars, it was their dedication to their sport that brought fame as their reward. In the new age, players become brands before they become sportsmen.
It means that, although globalisation and increased commercialisation have contributed to the fattening of the ATP and WTA coffers, the river of money rarely runs along a clean or requisite stream, particularly at grass roots level, which finds itself in dire need of investment. Much of the annual Lawn Tennis Association grass-roots funding, for example, is supplied by the surpluses of its Wimbledon tournament intake; yet this surplus has decreased with each passing year, as tournament prize money and player endorsements have gradually increased. The future crop finds its growth stunted as the self-interested current crop remains consistently watered. We waited seventy years for the next Fred Perry. We may be waiting longer still for the next Andy Murray.
Tennis has found itself bogged down in a paradoxical swamp of its own making. The future of tennis is inhibited by its reliance upon heavily investing in, and sponging-off, the marketable profitability of its present, which takes money away from the development of the next generation of players. Yet without the money and popularity that its current ‘stars’ help to generate for the sport, there would be arguably no future to envisage at all for the sport. Tennis needs to find the right balance between ability and marketability, before it sinks further into the swamp.