The French Open and women's tennis have many players not named Serena Williams also worth watching

The WTA has gotten good at supporting the women’s game on Williams' back, but it should promote the sport based on the level of play of all competitors.
Image:
Serena Williams reacts after missing a shot against Sofia Kenin at the French Open on June 1, 2019, in a game she would go on to lose.Christophe Ena / AP
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By Amira Rose Davis, assistant professor of history and African American studies

A breaking news alert pinged on my phone last Saturday and informed me that Serena Williams had lost in the third round of the French Open at Roland-Garros. Despite moderate coverage of the start of the tournament, which concludes Sunday, the news that Williams had lost spread quickly and became a national story. While her third-round exit was among her earliest ever at the French Open, it was hardly surprising to tennis fans who have watched her struggle with injuries as of late.

Williams was not the only big name to fall early on. Karolina Pliskova, Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens and Naomi Osaka, who burst into the media spotlight after her New York Open win last year, were also knocked out well before the finals. In fact, only three of the 10 top-ranked players made it out of the third round of the women’s singles. The semifinals featured just one player ranked in the top 25, and it included not one but two unranked teenagers, among them 17-year-old Amanda Anisimova of the United States, who ousted the defending champion, Simona Halep, before being eliminated herself.

This need for an heir to Williams suggests that for women’s tennis and women’s sports in general, the health of a league rests on the marketability of its stars.

Yet, as the news alert indicated, big names such as Williams and Osaka attract more attention in defeat than many outstanding competitors do in victory. While some of these upsets were unexpected, injuries to both women and Williams’ lack of earlier tournament play foreshadowed their struggles. Coverage that focuses overwhelmingly on these stars’ losses does so at the expense of highlighting the rest of the field, and perpetuates the unhealthy burden placed on professional women stars to carry their sports — both on and off the court.

The attention on a few big names has been propelled, in part, by the persistent argument (or fear) that without the “star power” of a Serena Williams, women’s tennis would suffer in terms of viewership, revenue and general interest. The WTA has long been upheld as the model for women’s professional athletics that’s working “well,” in juxtaposition to other struggling women’s professional leagues. Nevertheless, the sport media’s assessment of the future of women’s tennis seems to once again hinge on the ability of a dominant player to generate interest and sustain the entire sport.

Consider, for instance, the clamor over Osaka after she dramatically defeated her one-time role model Williams in the 2018 U.S. Open finals. The expectation that an aging Williams will have to retire her racket sooner or later has led sports media and the WTA alike to try to enthrone a “successor” for years. What followed Osaka’s feat was magazine covers, talk show appearances, endorsement deals and more attempting to ensconce her as the ascending face of women’s tennis. Despite the accolades and being ranked No. 1 in the world, her play has actually been quite inconsistent — as seen in her early exit from the French Open this week.

Indeed, this need for an heir to Williams suggests that for women’s tennis and women’s sports in general, the health of a league rests on the marketability of its stars. It indicates that professional sporting opportunities for women are so precarious that their wins and losses are more than personal achievements or disappointments, but rather bear the weight of their entire professional existence.

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Moreover, the search for the promotable star has historically meant an appeal to “market logic” that is predicated on white, heteronormative and middle-class ideals of beauty, speech and gender presentation. Women earn some of the most recognition and highest salaries in tennis and other sports that are deemed “feminine” and feature uniforms that seem to emphasize this point.

Tennis, gymnastics, figure skating and, later, track and field have been some of the most lucrative professional sports for women. Much of this has had to do with brand sponsorships and endorsements rather than salary or prize earnings. For women athletes, who often suffer paltry and unequal pay, endorsement deals can provide the bulk of their revenue streams.

The rigidity of this market logic doesn’t always reward the most dominant or successful players. Williams was for many years out-earned by Maria Sharapova, who was not close to beating her on the court but raked in millions more in endorsement deals. Sharapova’s race, sex appeal and “likeability” positioned her as a better brand ambassador, while Williams had to navigate the double bind of racism and sexism that made it harder to find footing in corporate sponsorships.

And while the tournament successes of both Williams and her sister, Venus, created opportunities for endorsements, some athletes, such as Anna Kournikova, were able to build a brand in spite of weak on-court performances. Kournikova benefited not only from her whiteness, appearance and sexuailty, but also by the late-’90s internet boom that built her image as the “most-googled sportswoman.”

This approach to women’s athletics is not only offensive, it also hurts the athletes and the sport itself. The media, tennis federations and corporate sponsors have failed to identify Williams’ successor because her many talented competitors have made that impossible. Yet the single-minded emphasis on Williams and her replacement sadly obscures the more interesting story of the tremendous expansion in the WTA’s breadth of talent.

The next generation of women’s tennis stars feature a deep pool and promise many years of compelling tennis. But the hyperfocus on big names not only puts too much pressure on their shoulders, it also conditions future support on the performance of a few.

This approach to women’s athletics is not only offensive, it also hurts the athletes and the sport itself.

Women’s tennis as a whole has been struggling for equal treatment. Beyond the hard-fought battle for equal prize money, women athletes have been vocal about the lack of maternity leave policies, the way their conduct is policed and their uniforms scrutinized. A rain delay this week meant that the ladies’ semifinals coincided with the men’s, with the women relegated to worse courts and the Tennis Channel cutting away from a potential women’s game winner to show the men walking in to warm up. It’s hard to believe that the broadcaster would have had the audacity to do that were Williams playing. But what if the respect for the semifinals of the women’s tournament was great enough to keep them on center court regardless of the competitors?

In this sense, the current depth and openness of the women’s tennis field not only reveals the growth of the game, but the areas in which more growth is warranted. Sports media, tennis federations and the WTA itself have gotten very good at supporting and promoting the women’s game on the back of Williams, but it should be able to promote women’s tennis based on the level of competitive play in the sport itself. That would set a much-needed precedent for more expansive women’s sports coverage that uplifts, respects and promotes the game, regardless of who is or isn’t playing.