In the week prior to this year’s U.S. Open tennis tournament, two-time champion Rafael Nadal took his game to an improvised court in central Manhattan. The premise: a round of “strip” tennis, sponsored by fashion brand Tommy Hilfiger. At the start of the event, the models facing Nadal across the net were decked in Hilfiger’s signature red, white, and blue. By the end, they were down to their sportswear skivvies.
“We had some fun, I think,” Nadal, famous for his sculpted physique, told the New York Times.
His American opponents might disagree. Why was Hilfiger, an all-American brand at its core, teaming up with Nadal, a Spaniard who still lives and trains in his hometown?
The answer has as much to do with the sorry state of men’s tennis in the U.S. as it has to do with the increasingly global nature of celebrity endorsement. American tennis, led by the United States Tennis Association (USTA), hasn’t produced a breakout star in men’s singles since Andy Roddick. He won his first and only Grand Slam in 2003, and finished the year at No. 1 in the rankings. In the decade-plus since then–tumbleweeds. (Apart from Venus and Serena Williams–the latter of whom is set to earn $13 million in endorsements this year–there has been a similar void on the women’s side.)
There are a variety of theories as to why the sport has suffered. Many blame the USTA, which funds and manages player development. Patrick McEnroe, younger brother to John, resigned from his post as general manager for player development last year after six years on the job; critics had pointed to his many external and overlapping responsibilities, including captain of the United States Davis Cup team and ESPN commentator, as unwelcome distractions. Others cite the dominance of sports like basketball, football, and soccer on U.S. playgrounds and television channels; the most promising athletes, they say, never even consider tennis.
“Tennis is just not at the forefront like it used to be,” Paul Goldstein, head coach at Stanford University, told Bloomberg. “There are on the order of 20,000 kids playing in tennis tournaments, and when you look at those numbers compared to where youth soccer is at, it’s disturbing.”
Whatever the cause, one thing is clear: The interest of brands in tennis players is as strong as ever. The three most popular men’s champions–Switzerland’s Roger Federer, Serbia’s Novak Djokovic, and Nadal–raked in a collective $117 million in endorsement deals this year so far, according to Forbes, on top of their tournament winnings. Last year those same three collected $103 million in endorsement checks. Deals with sports apparel and equipment companies like Nike contribute to that total, but it’s relationships with mainstream consumer brands like Jacob’s Creek and Telefonica that have allowed tennis players to best the off-the-court earnings of athletes in other sports.
Moreover, brands have discovered that fans are more than happy to cheer on players from other countries. At the very moment when U.S. officials are dreaming of an American rebirth, sponsors are calculating a player’s potential appeal in growing markets like China.
“What’s great about tennis is that it’s a global sport,” says Max Eisenbud, the IMG agent behind the blockbuster commercial success of Russia’s Maria Sharapova ($22 million in 2014 endorsement earnings) and China’s Li Na ($18 million). In Asia, Australia, and the Middle East, tennis players work a grueling schedule that takes them to the areas of the world where brands want to grow.
In the side courts that radiate out from Arthur Ashe Stadium this year, there were promising signs of emerging American talent. U.S. players currently hold four of the top 10 spots in the International Tennis Federation’s boys’ ranking, reserved for players 18 and under. On Sunday night, after a rain delay, American juniors Tommy Paul and Taylor Fritz squared off in the U.S. Open boys’ final, with Fritz taking the title. Earlier this summer, they met in the boys’ final at the French Open, with the opposite result. And at Wimbledon, American Reilly Opelka, who clocks in at just over 6-foot-10, was the last boy standing, after defeating the top juniors seed in the semifinals. Media commentators, hungry for American champions, say they see in this group of teens echoes of the talent that came of age in the ’90s–household names like Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, and Jim Courier.
“I wouldn’t want to put that kind of pressure on their shoulders,” Martin Blackman, the USTA’s newly installed general manager for player development, told the Boston Globe last month. “But I really believe that this is the beginning of our way back to the top of the game. When I see these guys all in the same peer group and I see the boys coming up behind them, I do believe this is the beginning of us getting back to where we belong.”
Several of the boys live and train together full time in Boca Raton, Florida, at a facility funded by the USTA. Next year the association will open a new, $60 million training center outside Orlando.
“Having six of the best juniors in the world in the same place, that are really competitive, helps all of us individually,” Opelka says. “We compete in almost everything, even fitness. We like to beat each other, and that’s how we get better.”
This year, as the members of this elite group transition to the professional tour, that competitive dynamic is likely to get more complicated. To date, it has been in the interests of the USTA and the young players to focus on slow and steady development and operate like a team. The teens feature one another in their Instagram and Twitter feeds, and coach Diego Moyano is an active social-media cheerleader.
“We go out to dinner, we all go to the beach sometimes. We go fishing. There’s definitely a bunch of off-court time that we spend around each other,” Opelka says. “Obviously on-court, it’s about being competitive.”
“It’s awesome,” Paul says. “We can get tournament-level matches with each other, and we make it fun for each other.”
As the teens transition to professional careers, however, they’ll be competing off the court as well. Their USTA funding will dry up, and endorsements will need to fill the gap. Agents, many of whom have been watching the boys since they were as young as 12, will be eager to manage those relationships, establish their personal brands, and lock in deals.
“America wants winners; they want players who are going to win Grand Slams,” says Evan Zeder, head of sports marketing for New Balance. He signed Opelka on the heels of the 17-year-old’s Wimbledon victory. “To be a top 10 player, you have to have a big weapon. Reilly has got that in his serve. He’s got a lot of potential but he’s not rushed, they’re doing it in the right way. I’ve watched him forever, I think he’s got a lot of talent and a lot of ability. His serve is still evolving, it’s going to get better. And he’s got all the other attributes to break serve.”
In the U.S. Open qualifying tournament, Opelka’s first experience at a men’s major, Opelka lost in the second round, 6-4, 6-2, undone by serving errors in a match that lasted less than an hour; later, he lost in the third round of the boys’ tournament.
Paul, in contrast, played with confidence through the qualifying rounds, winning a place in the first round of the main draw versus Andreas Seppi, a 31-year-old Italian who turned pro in 2002. The match started with a bang as Paul attacked from the baseline with Roddick-style strokes and took an early lead. Opelka, his towering baseball hat hard to miss in the crowd, cheered his friend on from the sidelines.
In the end, Paul was no match for the tour veteran. He dropped the first set, crumbled in the second, and regained his composure in the third. The final score: 6-4, 6-0, 7-5.
When a reporter asked him what his career objectives were for the year ahead, Paul paused, looking somewhat sheepish. “I haven’t really set any goals yet, I should probably do that actually,” the 18-year-old said.
Eisenbud’s advice on that front is simple: Get the right development structure in place, and build a fan base on social media. Make it global if you can. A good agent should do the rest, laying the groundwork to rapidly close deals when a player’s peak moment arrives, whether it’s a Grand Slam trophy or a respectable ranking.
“The biggest thing as a manager is where you think the ceiling is for your player,” he says. After that, it’s about “knowing when to strike.”