“We not gonna be here for 10 more years.” – Rafael Nadal talking about himself, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray.
That quote from World No. 1 Rafael Nadal after defeating a young Austrian player Dominic Thiem is perhaps a perfect summation for the opening week at this year’s French Open. While the men’s draw still has its fair share of big names, the women’s draw finds itself absent its top three seeds that all lost before the fourth round – a first-time occurrence at any Grand Slam.
While marquee names like Djokovic, Federer and Murray, on the men’s side and Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova in the WTA are expected to keep playing for several years, it’s not very likely they will be around for 10 more as Nadal wisely states. The upsets of several of the tour’s biggest names in Paris this past week has once again brought focus on the sport’s future, leaving many within it in a mixed state of half hope and half dread.
While tennis greats emerge, thrive and then retire in each generation, it’s still unclear if the rising talents just behind the likes of Nadal, Federer, and Williams to name a few will capture the imagination and interest of the broader sports watching audience like those three now certain Hall of Famers have over the course of their careers. When a young player makes a deep run at either a Grand Slam or posts consistent results over a season, they become immediately tagged as “one to watch”. But it just doesn’t seem fair that they have to try and fill the shoes of players who are often described as “legendary” every time they walk on court.
The sport, and its surrounding media, knows that it can’t rely on the greats forever. Grand Slams generate multiple profiles and interviews in print and online, especially with up and coming players with the goal of making them more well-known. These “get to know” pieces can sometimes range from the insightful to the inscrutable.
A piece on Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov, published for some reason just after he lost in the opening round of Paris, focused more on Dimitrov’s dating exploits, that includes his current paramour Sharapova, more than his recent success on court. Famous sports couples often generate bigger headlines, but can’t always be counted on to last. Just ask Caroline Wozniacki.
A profile of Simona Halep, now ranked No. 4 in the world, used the word “unclassifiable” in its headline. That may be the perfect adjective to describe the Romanian. Halep is a thoughtful and fascinating player to watch. But her game is not the sort that lends itself to quick or succinct description in this short attention span slash 15-second sound bite world we live in.
And then there’s Ernests Gulbis. After reaching the French Open quarterfinals six years ago, big things were expected from the young Latvian. Instead, he embarked on a roller coaster career known more for his off-court antics. But that’s all changed as Gulbis is now focused solely on his tennis. His five-set win over Roger Federer this weekend puts him back into the elite eight of Paris, but also back into the spotlight. Gulbis, who often says exactly what is on his mind, tends to polarize tennis fans. Some love his candor and penchant for breaking racquets. Others find him a boorish, rich, prima donna that they love to cheer against. Is there any other player that so many want to tune in and tune out at the same time?
Dimitrov, Gulbis, Halep and several more players on the cusp of bigger things, all have the potential to win a Grand Slam or more. While the sport at large does it best to promote them, there’s also the realization that most of the invested tennis audience is still rooting for those stalwarts of the game and hoping, against hope, that they will stick around for a long time.
Television often ends up with the biggest and trickiest balance act when it comes to this dilemma. Showing the established stars is the safe bet, but they also have a duty to highlight the up and comers. Even if it means annoying their audience with an on-camera interview with one of the young guns during an exciting match happening at the same time. The other complaint hurled at the networks is that they don’t show enough matches between those players that aren’t yet on the “A-List”.
NBC, an American network that somehow has held onto its broadcast rights for the French Open this year, did just that. After years of complaints about its tape delayed coverage, NBC showed live tennis on Sunday. That included a match between megastar Maria Sharapova and Aussie veteran Sam Stosur followed by the last set of a fourth round between Garbine Muguruza, a rising Spanish player who beat Serena Williams, and France’s Pauline Parmentier.
NBC stuck to the schedule and showed a live match, regardless of who was in it. To be clear, it was the only live match still ongoing, but they didn’t cut to any previous highlights. But how many tennis watchers stuck around after Sharapova gave a victory wave to the crowd? And what if Muguruza and Parmentier, instead of a Round of 16 meeting, was the French Open women’s final instead? Despite NBC’s efforts to promote it, how many tennis fans in America, except for the diehards who will watch anything, would actually tune in?
American players, who don’t have a last name of Williams, are the other part of this seemingly impossible equation. U.S. television networks, who spend a lot of money on television rights at all of the majors, often spend most of their broadcast hours showing players from other countries. Some of the above listed superstars are household names everywhere, but American channels surely hope that sooner rather than later several talented locals become more than just familiar losers in the first week. Especially if grumpy advertisers in the next few years say, “We don’t know any of these players.” Television networks live and die by their annual rate card distributed to potential advertisers who like seeing their products placed, at least indirectly, next to the names of famous players, and not those only hardcore tennis fans can reel off right away.
10 years from now when Nadal and his fellow future Hall of Fame luminaries are far away from a public tennis court lit up by television cameras, new players will be the reigning stars of the sport. Will they capture wider public imagination? Or will they find themselves rulers of a shrinking niche sports kingdom?
As Nadal might say, “We gonna find out, no?”