Hello and welcome to the 25th issue of Tennis inbox. This week we talk income inequality in tennis and its potential impacts on up-and-coming players, catch up with Zverev and Azarenka, and dig a little deeper on the WTA’s relationship with China and how this relates to activism in sports. Read on to find out more.
The flip side of the coin and the tennis tours as a ferris-wheel
In last week’s issue, I took a look at Dr. Stephanie Kovalchik’s Game Age factor, which showed that players today are accumulating more miles on their bodies at a younger age, and that they’re doing it on a surface which is more damaging to them: hardcourt.
Today, I wanted to quickly explore the flip side of that coin and contemplate how and why tennis players are able to have such long careers these days—even though they’re putting so many miles on their odometers. The viral essay from 2017 titled “Why are tennis players getting older?” offers us a pretty good hypothesis. Its writer, Matt (I got in touch and asked for his last name, but he informed me that he likes to stay semi-anonymous on the internet) makes his thesis clear on why he thinks tennis players at the top of our game are getting older:
“[The] combination of hyper-professionalisation and the massively lopsided distribution of wealth within the game has led to a situation of entrenched inequality, which is manifested in the ageing trends of the top players.”
Put another way, it’s because players at the top of our game are able to make so much money—and thus invest it into themselves and their bodies, that they are able to have such longevity.
It’s hard to fault this line of thinking. One of the reasons I have tried to focus on struggling and aspiring players is because I’m aware just how tough life is for players at the lower levels of the tour. With players staying healthier for longer periods of time and playing well into their 30s, there are fewer and fewer spots for younger athletes who are just trying to launch their careers.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Matt’s essay is when he introduces a concept called Escape Velocity. Defined as an income threshold, once a player reaches this level:
“[T]hey can cement their place by paying top dollar for all the thing that the lower ranks can only dream of—full-time coaching staff, fitness trainers, nutritionists, medical advisors and personal doctors, first class flights, six star hotels, the list goes on—and prolong their careers and their time at the top far longer than used to be possible before the hyper-professionalisation of the game, and the explosion of money at the upper end.“
If we take Matt’s hypothesis as essentially true, then we’ve got ourselves an interesting dilemma: The system as it’s currently set up only allows a few players to filter through to the highest levels of our game. But once they reach that level, if they’re wise about, they can extend their stay through careful investment in their bodies due to the funds they’ve been able to accumulate. This means, however, that there’s less space for younger players on tour.
Matt also points out how this idea of having enough money might impact a player’s mentality:
“Having money changes your psychology—how much harder is it to serve out a match when your livelihood depends on doing so?—and your whole approach to the game. Roger Federer can calmly take six months off tennis to make sure a knee injury is 100% repaired and rehabbed, his only concern being the impact on his career-end trophy tally. But if you need the prize money from your next tournament just to keep on the tour, you’re much more likely to ignore that niggle in your knee, much more likely to get a chronic injury, much more likely to end your career early.”
So the effects of the current prizemoney structure are two-fold: physical, in terms how athletes are able to invest in themselves; and mental, in terms of the pressure of competing when you’ve not yet reached this Escape Velocity threshold.
Some might say that there’s nothing wrong with the way things are now. That those players who have worked their ways to the top deserve what they get and deserve to stay up there for as long as they can. After all, they’ve endured their fair share of struggles, too, and they’re only using what they’ve earned to stay at the top now.
To find a problem with that argument, it helps to envision the tours as a gigantic, spinning ferris-wheel that can only hold a certain amount of bodies. The players who are currently on it are making very comfortable livings. The wheel spins round and round. The longer they stay on, the richer they get. Whenever they’ve had enough, or their bodies give up on them, they can hop off the spinning ferris-wheel and clear up a spot for the next up-and-comer.
Now here’s the problem, getting on to that ferris-wheel is the real challenge. It’s moving fast. It’s difficult to gain your footing. And there’s a bottleneck of other players next to you—all pushing and jostling—who’re also trying to make that leap. Only a few spots open up every year. If you’re a player who’s already on the spinning wheel, and you see the players below you scrambling to jump on, why not just stay on a little longer and milk your career for all it’s worth?
The analogy is far from perfect but I hope it helps to illustrate the point.
Matt writes it much more succinctly than my explanation—especially as it relates to the consequences of such a system:
“[The] implication is that there may be players outside the top 100 who have just as much talent and potential as players in the top 10, but who will never get their opportunity to ascend to that level because of the way money is distributed within the game.”
I don’t know about you, but something about that just doesn’t seem fair to me. In an ideal tennis world, I would argue, the prizemoney structure shouldn’t make the barrier to entry more difficult.
Yet that’s where we are.
I’m not proposing some radical fix for this; in fact, what I’m suggesting is quite vanilla and is a position that has been propounded before. Spread the money a little better towards the lower ends. That’s all I’m saying. Enough so that it’s significant, but not so much that top players aren’t incentivized to keep performing the way that they have.
Give players wanting to jump on to that ferris-wheel a chance to invest in their bodies and games by rewarding them with a little more. Doing this will make it easier to leap on board for those trying to make that jump.
Two in a row for Zverev
Alexander Zverev hasn’t had the most consistent 6 months—at least in terms of what he’s actually capable of. In early July, he angered tennis’ commentariat by partying at a day-club after promising to isolate due to his close contact with someone who had tested positive for the coronavirus. After that, his serve fell apart against Andy Murray in Cincinnati. Even worse, he couldn’t capitalize on his two sets to love lead against Dominic Thiem in the US Open final. Jannik Sinner sent him tumbling out of the French in the fourth round.
Returning to Germany, however, seems to have helped Zverev. On Monday, he defeated Diego Schwartzman 6–2, 6–1 to win his eighth match (and second title) in a row. The second tournament in Cologne is now 23-year-old Zverev’s 13th title on tour. For some perspective, I want to highlight what Enrico Maria Riva, a tennis graphics operator and tennis statistician, tweeted:
It’s worth taking the time to think about what Zverev has accomplished so far since we still talk about many of the players on Maria Riva’s list with fondness. Yet, if we’re looking at solely titles, Zverev—at 23-years-old—has already surpassed them all. Kei Nishikori, the player closest to Zverev in that tally, has been on tour for around 13 years. Tomas Berdych, who retired with 13, had to play for 17 years to collect his. Zverev’s already collected the same amount in about seven years.
If the trend continues for the next decade and Zverev manages to stay healthy, I don’t see why he couldn’t retire with three to four Grand Slams and many more smaller titles. Zverev’s been a tour staple for so long now that it’s easy to forget just how young he really is. Since we’re seeing fewer younger players achieve success on tour these days, we shouldn’t discount what Zverev’s been able to accomplish. Tennis is an older man’s sport these days, and that Zverev has been able to consistently make an impact at such a young age should be appreciated more.
A way of highlighting this is by using a handy graph made by Italian statistics website, Tennis My Life, which compares how many titles players of the past had accumulated by 23.
While Zverev has been the most successful younger player of this generation so far, his accomplishments are minuscule compared to what other players were able to achieve by the age of 23. I suppose it’s part of the Big 3 effect that the German has been unable to really take the spotlight and start winning more, since they’ve done their fair share of hogging titles. But My Tennis Life’s graph is a great indicator of the differences in domination that we see today. Players—especially on the men’s side—are simply unable to perform like their counterparts of the same age of generations past. Let me clarify: when I say perform, I mean in terms of winning titles. For there are older players getting in their way.
Sabalenka beats an in-form Azarenka
I’ve been tooting the Victoria Azarenka horn for the past few months because I’m genuinely glad that she’s had a return to form and is winning so much. In Ti #20 I wrote that “Azarenka has won 15 of her last 17 matches on tour.” There’s an update to that figure: she’s now at 19 wins out of 23 matches, or a win percentage of 83% (that’s impressive—even if she was playing at your local club as opposed to on the WTA Tour.) On Monday, she had the chance to make it 20 out of 23 wins, but was unable to capitalize, losing to compatriot Aryna Sabalenka 6–2, 6–2. I don’t want to take away from Sabalenka, though. She’s only 22 and already has seven titles. Looks like a long, successful career is ahead of her.
You might have noticed that there isn’t really much tennis happening on the women’s side. While there seem to be men’s tournaments every week, there’s hardly been any play on the WTA tour (there is a small $80k event taking place in Tyler, Texas). That’s because of how reliant the women’s tour is on China. And with the Chinese government disallowing sporting competitions, we’ll have to wait until November 7th for the Upper Austria Ladies Linz event to watch women’s tennis again.
Which leads us to the WTA and China
In an era where sporting organizations are becoming more “politically conscious,” one wonders what the heck the WTA is doing in China. Writing in the Guardian on the WTA’s close ties to the eastern powerhouse, sportswriter Tumaini Carayol gives us a clue:
“Pound for pound, [The WTA Finals] is essentially the most lucrative tennis event in history–men’s or women’s. The figures are astonishing: the total prize money stands at $14m (£10.75m), far outstripping the $8m on offer by the ATP’s equivalent event at the O2 Arena in London. If undefeated, the champion will take home $4.725m compared with the record $3.8m pocketed by the US Open champions this year. Steve Simon, the WTA’s CEO, has said: ‘There was a true commitment here, trying to do something about ‘walking the walk’ when it comes to women’s empowerment. It made a huge impression on us when we saw someone who didn’t just talk the talk.'”
So, it’s money. I guess that the WTA is able to look past all of China’s faults (Hong Kong, its treatment of the Uighurs) because of how much money and opportunities the country provides to its athletes through its events and partnerships with sponsors. Carayol makes this point even more salient for us, writing:
“Their [the WTA’s] Chinese partners do not think small; with each new event comes a towering new stadium and vast sums from major sponsors to tennis projects stretching far beyond the tournament.”
Of course it’s important to understand the WTA’s relationship to money and how pivotal this was in its foundation. Female players were devalued, not prioritized, and expected to compete for a pittance compared to what men were being paid. They were not being fairly remunerated.
But given that the WTA was founded as a means of fighting injustice, it certainly is ironic that it has cozied up so warmly to a regime known for engaging in it.
So will the global pandemic cause the WTA to reconsider its ties to China? All tournaments there have been cancelled after all. Will we see a different 2021 calendar? Unlikely. If there’s anything I’ve learnt from observing how sporting organizations operate, it’s that money and funding controls what is and what isn’t acceptable activism.
What do I mean by that? Simple: NBA players were able to voice their displeasure over the past half a year because sponsors and funders had no issue with their message. In fact, they often collaborated with players in their activism. Think about the countless ads, messaging, and images you saw which had an activist tint to them. On the tennis front, Naomi Osaka was able to be critical because the USTA applauded, even supported her stances. Tennis commentators gushed daily about how Osaka was highlighting discrimination.
Do you think players or an organization would be able to criticize China equally free of consequences? No. Of course not. Think about how the NBA reacted when Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for protesters in Hong Kong—thereby angering the Chinese Communist Party. The NBA put out a statement characterizing his tweet as “regrettable.” It also clarified that his support for Hong Kong protestors “[did] not represent the Rockets or the NBA.” Morey was also denounced by the Chinese consulate in Houston and by the owner of the Rockets. His tweet was deleted; and he put out a groveling apology. According to Business Insider, these are just some of the ways that state-owned companies in China reacted:
- Streaming platform Tencent said it would stop broadcasting Rockets games
- The Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) suspended operations with the Rockets
- China Central Television (CCTV), the state broadcasting network in China, said it would stop broadcasting Rockets games
- Chinese shoe company Li Ning suspended operations with the Rockets
- Chinese shoe company Alta suspended operations with the Rockets
- Shanghai Pudong Development Bank Card Centre suspended operations with the Rockets
- Chinese smartphone producer Vivo suspended business with the NBA
- Online shopping sites owned by Alibaba and JD.com appeared to take down Rockets merchandise, according to CNBC
Would you say that’s over the top? For a tweet?
And what about recent NBA champion LeBron James? An arbiter of justice in the United States and always outspoken, James hemmed and hawed in 2019 when it came to offering his thoughts on the China’s encroachments in Hong Kong and called Daryl Morey’s opinion “misinformed.”
The cynic in me says that at the end of the day activism is only conducted if it’s not financially damaging; the bottom line is what is the most important. If what you say is going to cost you money, then you need to shut the hell up.
Just so I’m 100% clear on this: I’m not saying that athletes and organizations shouldn’t speak up when they see wrongs in the world—no! In many cases, they are powerful change agents because of their public status. I’m only commenting that their speaking out on issues in the western world seems to be underpinned by a knowledge that they won’t face a monetary backlash for doing so. It’s something we don’t talk enough about as sportsfans and sportswriters.
But, this is a tennis newsletter, so I’ll keep my commentary confined to that in the coming issues. I hope you’ll forgive this transgression. And I’ll let Tumaini Carayol have the final word on this:
“Questions will be asked of where the WTA stands and how much its money means to it. The organization will be judged accordingly.”