As we roll into the first week of the U.S. Open, the media continues to overflow with stories about how American tennis is flailing. With the retirement of Andre Agassi, (adopted American) Martina Navratilova, the dubious state of the Williams sisters and Lindsay Davenport, and the general speculation about the state of American tennis, it’s time to take a different look at the game and its future. This year’s Open offers a unique challenge and opportunity for European players like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Amelie Mauresmo; each of whom are at the pinnacle of the game but who are virtually unrecognizable outside followers of the sport, particularly in the U.S..
Roger Federer is perhaps the biggest anomaly. As one of the greatest to ever play the game, he’s on the verge of winning his third straight U.S. Open, following a fourth consecutive Wimbledon title. An intriguing question is raised as to whether or not Americans will embrace one of the world’s best athletes or simply abandon the sport altogether.
The Tennis Problem
In the 1970s and early ’80s, tennis was booming. Foreign players such as Bjorn Borg, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, and Ivan Lendl were household names. Bjorn Borg, in particular, was arguably one of the biggest names of the decade. His legendary battles with John McEnroe energized the tennis world, making Borg one of the few foreign athletes to reach superstar status in the U.S.. Borg was as recognizable to American teens as Swedish supergroup Abba, and almost as well-liked — particularly versus his rival, the super-brat.
American, or not.
In sheer comparison of the Federer-era to the Borg-era, tennis has surely slid in popularity in a big way. Borg was so huge, and his Fila outift was such a well-recognized fashion statement, that it basically defined the look of the 1970s. Amazingly, he never won the U.S. Open.
Today, tennis competes against dozens of entertainment choices and shorter attention spans. In the U.S., cutting through the din of WWE, NASCAR, the NBA, the NFL, and MLB — no less their computerized athlete forms depicted in Playstations and XBoxes coast to coast — is difficult at best. Add to this that tennis is more global than it was during the Borg-era, with tournaments being held on every continent, with a schedule that runs the entire year.
As for American fandom, it doesn’t help that there are only 15 tournaments played in the U.S. Compare this to 1981, when there were 26. Including the U.S. Open, only five tournaments in North America are Masters Series-level or above, which puts players like Roger in the country for less than two months a year. Comparing Federer to, say, Tiger Woods, who spends much of the year traispsing around on U.S. golf courses, and it’s easy to see that no exposure equals, well, no exposure.
Make no mistake, the ATP faces much different problems than those of the WTA. Players such as Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova have risen to popularity based on three unique criteria: Sex appeal, a largely American upbringing, and the Internet. Despite the fact that Kournikova hasn’t played a WTA match in three years, she is still one of the most searched items on the Web. In fact, according to MarketLeap, which measures Internet impact, Anna Kournikova is searched over 4,000 times more than Roger Federer. Ask any non-tennis fan if they can name a female player who is not American and is not Kournikova or Sharapova and see what reply you get.
The American Problem
Let’s focus for a moment on the reverse problem for foreign players: Why should they expend the energy on the U.S. market? Federer, for his part, already earns more than $20 million annually, about half from his winnings and appearance fees, and the remainder from numerous sponsorships. Fewer sponsor commitments allows Federer to focus on tennis and maintaining his high ranking.
Despite his travels around New York City last week in preparation for the Open, Rafael Nadal and his team aren’t terribly concerned with improving his image in the U.S either. In Spain, Nadal is a super hero and an icon. He was recently named among the 20 most influential people in the country, and appears regularly in television commercials for sponsors Kia and Nike. He is so famous in Europe, in fact, that he turned down a spot in People Magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful” issue to focus on recovery from a foot injury. Not many 20 year old athletes have such luxuries.
The argument that the sport lacks any true rivalry that would match the Borg-McEnroe era is lame at best. Federer’s rivalry with Rafael Nadal, who can lay claim to four of Federer’s five losses this year, including the French Open — the only Slam that eludes the Swiss player — is palpable to anyone with a passing interest in the men’s game. For their part, the ATP is eating up the rivalry without having to force feed it to fans or followers of the sport. Just last week, Nike sponsored a match between the two on a mid-town Manhattan street that had office workers hanging out of their windows and PR girls in flipflops furiously tap-tapping on their crackberries.
And there are other indications that the modern tennis rivalry is not totally lost in this country. Time magazine slated a four-page story on the duo, and NBC’s ratings for the Wimbledon final between the two this year topped the Federer-Roddick final last year by 19 percent. The Open’s ratings for the final — when and if one of these two make an appearance — are guaranteed to be even higher given the draw the Open holds in the States. Fuggetaboudit.
Footnote: It doesn’t help that the USTA gave up a potential market of $6-10 million per year in funds for its community side by renaming the National Tennis Center for Billie Jean King rather than selling its naming rights to a corporation. One has to wonder what Billie Jean, who is so very committed to community programming, really thinks of that. I suspect we’ll never know.
The American Opportunity
In one respect, the time is ripe for Roger Federer to pounce into full view in the United States. Among the American men, Agassi is days from retiring, Roddick’s play has been unpredictable since 2003, and a big Blake win during the tournament will be a big surprise (a good surprise, but a doubtful one). With that scenario in mind, companies are on the prowl for a spokesman in tennis, and the pickin’s to choose from in the U.S. are slim. The No. 1 player in the game is an obvious alternative.
Even if he is a European.
And Federer is an amazing candidate. He possesses qualities not found in many modern athletes: He’s smart and well-spoken, he even speaks four languages; he is by all accounts a gentlemen, and a stylish and attractive one at that; he’s an ambassador for both the sport and for UNICEF; and, of course, he’s on track to be the greatest player of all-time. He also is focused on his charity, and like Andre Agassi, he will one day be known as much for his foundation’s work as he is for his amazing talents on the tennis court.
How to Win Big in America
Getting into the minds of American fans is a challenge for any foreign athlete. Despite World Cup this summer, you might be hard-pressed to find an American who could pick superstar and globally recognized soccer star David Beckham out of a line-up.
But combined with the TV success of the World Cup this summer, there are signs that the U.S. is looking less isolationist than in the past. Many team sports are assimilating foreign players such as the Dallas Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki, the NY Yankees Hideki Matsui, and China’s Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets, with great success.
The New York Times sports magazine, Play, put Federer on the cover of last week’s issue, and the piece written by author David Foster Wallace was the most-emailed article for many days to follow. If Roger Federer makes the breakthrough into the cause célèbre of American consciousness, he will be not just one of the rare tennis players to do so, but one of the only foreign athletes of any stripe from a non-team sport.
Like any top player, creating a balance between work, charity and sponsor commitments is difficult. In a sport like tennis, super-athletes have to also weigh geography. Federer views himself a citizen of the world, and while respecting the large American market, he has no real reason to be in awe of it. He has real reason to be in awe of Asia and the Middle East.
It’s not a stretch to visualize Roger in commercials for Jaguar or selling cameras like Agassi or Sharapova. For her part, Sharapova won the 2004 Wimbledon, gobbled up millions in endorsements and has not won a Slam since. Ditto for her boyfriend Andy Roddick. Federer’s recent signing with IMG super-agent Tony Godsick is evidence that a few global endorsements are on their way.
The question is not whether or not America will warm to Federer, but how soon.
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