The biggest story of American tennis in 2022 has undeniably been Serena Williams “evolving” away from the game and playing what is very likely her last match. “It’s been a fun ride,” she said on court following her loss in the third round. “I’m just so grateful to every single person that’s ever said ‘Go Serena!’ in their life.”
The narrative is not lost on Martin Blackman, United States Tennis Association's (USTA) head of player development—a role that places him in charge of identifying and developing the next generation of American tennis players and coaches. “Venus and Serena are unique—they're game changers. Part of our responsibility is to capitalize on the opportunity that they've given us,” Blackman tells Town & Country. That means emphasizing a new perception of tennis. “It’s not the traditional insider sport that it used to be,” he says.
And while Serena’s goodbye may mark the end of one chapter in American tennis, it also coincides with the dawning of a new era. Part of the change is in the numbers, pure and simple: this year, 44 Americans entered in the singles draw, the most since 2002 (excluding 2020, when COVID-related travel restrictions impacted the entry field). “It's been really, really exciting,” Jessica Pegula, currently the top-ranked U.S. woman in the world, tells Town & Country about her cohort. “There’s been such a deep crop for such a long time. American tennis is really strong, the depth is really good at every single level.”
Another sign of new beginnings in American tennis can be found in the hopeful shift in the sport’s culture in the States. Today, thanks in considerable part to the inspiring Williams sisters, more Black players than ever before are picking up a racket and climbing the ranks of the sport. Equally important: the audience for tennis is also becoming more diverse.
Tuning into Serena’s goodbye were tennis fans, of course, but also many others. “Already, I’m seeing more kids of color coming into the sport, and being involved in our camps,” Blackman says.“People who aren't even sports fans [were] watching.” And when they tuned in, he hopes they realize tennis in 2022 is “even more accessible, even more diverse.”
It is a goal that is shared by many in the game. “Tennis is not the first sport we think of when we think of easy access sports,” Sloane Stephens, who won the 2017 U.S. Open, said during a WTA event with Hologic ahead of this year’s tournament. “Being able to bring tennis to under-resourced communities is super important to me.” In 2013, she launched the Sloane Stephens Foundation—with the goal of empowering kids on and off the court, through everything from tennis summer camps in Compton to after-school tutoring.
The word of “accessibility” is key in this new era. How does the USTA make the sport more accessible to communities across the country? How does the perception of tennis as a sport shift? It begins with the players themselves—who are not a monolith.
Two examples of players following in the Williams’ footsteps are Coco Gauff, the teen phenom from Atlanta who made it to the finals of the 2022 French Open and to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open earlier this week, and Frances Tiafoe, the 24-year-old son of immigrants from Sierra Leone who plays in the semifinals tonight. Tiafoe, in particular, has been on a fairytale run, which has included defeating favorite Rafael Nadal in the fourth round.
“Serena means everything to me. Especially in the Black community and around the world, she's an icon. I don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing without her,” Tiafoe told Town & Country before the Open began. “What she and Venus did over the years, playing each other in Grand Slams, everything they overcame in a predominantly white sport and dominating for so many years,” he says. “It’s so admirable.”
Tiafoe's run and Serena's goodbye at the 2022 U.S. Open emphasizes the past, present, and future of American tennis. Patrick McEnroe, a former American player turned ESPN commentator, thinks the popularity of this year’s Open is a combination of three things: a pandemic-related tennis boom across the country, a feeling that things are finally returning back to normal and of course, Serena. “It’s a perfect storm,” he tells Town & Country. “The business of recreational tennis has been booming, and even now that the pandemic is lessening, people are still staying with tennis.”
Interest in the sport spiked during the pandemic and does not seem to be abating. According to the USTA, between 2019 and 2021, nearly 5 million more players picked up a tennis racket—exceeding growth of all other racquet sports combined, which includes the very trendy pickleball. Notably, participation among Hispanic and Latino players climbed 60% in those two years (from 2 million in 2019 to 3.2 million in 2021), and increased amongst Black players nearly 45% (from 1.6 million to 2.3 million). Tennis is considered by many to be a “COVID-safe” sport, and people around the country are finding the sport a solid way to stay active and healthy in our new post-pandemic reality.
“Tennis has brought a lot to my life,” Madison Keys, a top American player, tells T&C. “I’ve learned so many things from tennis that I can apply to life. If we can make it more popular and more accessible, and more kids wanna play, it can be a really big game changer.”
The increase in the number of casual participants in the sport appears to have translated to greater interest in professional tennis. Williams’s final match broke ESPN viewership records for tennis, peaking at 6.9 million viewers. And the U.S. Open at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing continued to break attendance records even after Williams was no longer playing.
Tennis is played increasingly in public parks and schools and has become part of a multi-sport experience for kids, Blackman says. There’s less emphasis on early specialization now, and rather a focus on making sure kids fall in love with the game. In fact, most top players competed in multiple sports when they were young (Nadal and Federer both played soccer). “Being a great player begins with passion, it begins with starting young, it begins with athleticism, and it begins with having a role model and being able to see yourself in the game,” Blackman says.
“People don’t understand that tennis is cool, right? People think of it as this prissy, stuck up [sport], and it's like, no, man!” Tiafoe told Town & Country. “People don't realize how physical it is—and how tough it is—to play great tennis week in and week out.”
For Micky Lawler, the president of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), “the future is very, very positive, thanks to Serena and Venus.” Lawler is seeing interest in women’s tennis surge; the WTA saw visits to their website grow from 16 million last year to 52 million this year. “Our audience funnel is getting wider and wider,” she says, referring to the growing popularity of the sport and fans who are engaging with the WTA’s social media.
One thing that many figures in the tennis world are looking forward to, including Lawler, is Netflix’s upcoming documentary about the tennis tour, created by the producers of the popular Formula 1: Drive to Survive series. “The strength here are the stories,” Lawler says.
She’s not the only one excited about the documentary expanding the fandom of the sport in America. "It's gonna be hopefully huge for tennis in the U.S., and give people a look at what our lives are like,” Taylor Fritz told Town & Country earlier this summer. Netflix, he added, "did amazing things for F1. So, I'm really hopeful that this is gonna get a lot of people into tennis."
Hopefully, this next generation of American players will push tennis to a new level of popularity in the States. “We’ve always had a constant cycle of really good, young talent with the [American] women players,” McEnroe says. “The men, we’re still waiting for one of those guys to really break through.” One thing in their favor? They are all around the same age and lift each other. “Personally, I think that’s really helping them, that they have four or five other guys” competing at their level.
All in all, “the game is thriving right now,” McEnroe told T&C during round three of the U.S. Open. “But what would be icing on the cake? Icing on the cake would be Francis Tiafoe playing on the final weekend.”
We’ll just have to wait and see.
Frances Tiafoe plays in the men’s singles semifinals tonight, September 9, on ESPN and ESPN+ at 7 p.m. eastern.
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