By Rohit Sudarshan
In Bill Simmons’ recent podcast, guest Malcom Gladwell bemoaned the future of tennis, which he felt was “doomed” upon the inevitable retirements of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and the Williams’ sisters. This group of players, the most impactful quartet the game has seen, featured in the finals of the 2017 Australian Open. But once the glory of the finals weekend faded, it seemed worthy to consider Gladwell’s statement and what the future of the game portends. There will inevitably be a lapse in talent after such high profile retirements, which will likely happen within the next 5 years. But tennis remains a popular global sport with a commitment to gender parity and a new frontier of talent from Asia.
The investment that regional tennis bodies around the world are making in Asia, the success of Asian tennis tournaments, and the efforts of top tennis coaches and academies to recruit Asian players suggests that, at least in theory, an increasingly engaged Asian market will translate to more Asian pros. Over the past decade, the Australian Open has been re-branded as the “Grand Slam of the Asia Pacific.”
The new coinage is strategic; the Asian sports market is growing and Australia, courtesy of its proximity to East Asia, benefits greatly from stronger economic ties there. Since 2006, Asian visitors to Australia have grown by more than 400%, making Asia a focal point for Tennis Australia’s growth strategy. The past two years have seen Tennis Australia open an office in China, leading to increased media attention, tennis broadcasting, and tourism. The results seem to be positive.
According to the Chinese Tennis Association, a four-year period from 2010 to 2014 saw an increase of 1 million new active tennis players per year. A glance at the entrance list of Australian players for the 2017 Australian Open shows the growing success of the Asian diaspora, particular in the women’s game. Of the sixteen Australian women that competed in either singles or doubles at the Australian Open, more than a quarter of them were of Asian descent, with parents that hail from Hong Kong, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
The Asia-Pacific region hosts 12 ATP events, narrowly behind the 14 that are hosted North America. On the WTA tour, the differences are even more striking; there are 12 North American tennis events and 23 in the Asia-Pacific region. The year-end WTA championships, considered the biggest calendar event outside of the Grand Slams, now takes place in Singapore and is guaranteed to stay at this site until 2018. The deal to move the event in 2013 was considered record-breaking, comprising 40% of the WTA’s net revenue.
It will take time for Asian players to emerge. Asia’s biggest stars, Japan’s Kei Nishikori, and now-retired two-time grand slam champion Li Na from China, have been more catalysts for the growing popularity of tennis in Asia than the result of it. But the rising number of Asian faces seen both on the court and in the stands of this year’s Australian Open should serve as a point of optimism for the region.
The ATP tour has nine players aged 21 or younger in the top 100. Four members of this group are people of color, three of whom are Asian or of Asian descent. Just as regional tennis bodies are making strides in reaching Asian audiences, so too are private coaches and academies. Nick Bollettieri, a renowned coach famous for launching the career of Andre Agassi and many other top American players in the 90s, has seen greater numbers of international tennis students attend his Florida tennis academy. Students from Asian countries make up a healthy component of the 80 countries represented at the academy.
Transitioning these students from practice courts to packed stadiums requires more than tennis scholarships. Fortunately, in 2013, the Australian Open began a new initiative that guaranteed a wildcard spot at the event for an Asian-Pacific player in the men’s and women’s field in both singles and doubles. This ensured that each event would see at least one Asian player compete in the men’s and women’s singles, and one duo from Asia in each doubles competition.
The draw for each of the events expanded from 8 to 16 in 2015, giving greater opportunities for Asian players to make professional appearances. ATP and WTA customs allow other events to reserve a few spots in the draw for local players, regardless of where they may be ranked. This is great news for Asian events, which happen to be some of the most lucrative. Outside of the grand slams and Masters 1000 events are ATP 500 and 250 events, smaller tournaments that still often secure the appearance of top players.
In terms of prize money, the biggest payout from an ATP 500 and ATP 250 event come from Asian events in China and Qatar, respectively. This financial backing ensures appearances by top players, a venue for Asian fans to see the sport, an opportunity for local players to play in the draw, and perhaps even a chance for local players to challenge top players in front of their home crowd. All of this is built to inspire future generations of athletes to pursue tennis.
Developments by the ATP and WTA tour are reminiscent of the National Basketball Association’s internationalization strategy. In the 1990s, the NBA began an investment in overseas markets, promoting the game in Europe, South America, and Asia. The early steps of securing television rights brought coverage of the game to homes around the world. After basketball became more ubiquitous abroad, the NBA began opening offices around the world and launching grass roots projects to promote the game among youth. With that infrastructure in place, a single, famous athlete can make all the difference as Yao Ming has done and continues to do for the sport of basketball in China. Li Na, for her part, has been the same kind of ambassador for tennis in China.
The 1992 U.S. Men’s “Dream Team” basketball victory lap was considered a watershed moment for the sport, but for much of the 90s, there were only a few international players in the NBA. After Michael Jordan’s second retirement in 1998, the league suffered a decline in viewership for years. But the NBA’s campaign to internationalize the game would eventually help revitalize the game in the coming decade. In the 2000’s, the NBA saw five Most Valuable Player awards go to players born outside of the U.S. In 2002, Yao Ming became the first international player drafted number one overall who had never played competitively (college or high school) in the United States. Since Yao, six players born outside of the U.S. have been the first overall pick in the NBA draft, including three in the last four years.
So to assuage Mr. Gladwell’s concerns, tennis is not doomed. If the game’s foray into Asia is a calculated market grab to minimize an expected lull in viewership as some of its greatest players transition towards retirement, it is a wise one. This investment in Asian players and Asian tournaments made well in advance means that as the game continues to grow in Asia, with the understanding that new stars will need to take the reins, players outside of the usual Western countries will have opportunities for greater representation. This is true in tennis even more so than the NBA in which the league itself is confined to North America. The dividend here is two-fold. Even if Asia doesn’t eventually produce the next Serena Williams, there will be a vast Asian market to welcome her wherever she is born.
Cover photo of Zhuhai Tennis Centre from populous.com.