Why the ATP is More Popular Than the WTA

Last night, Fernando Gonzalez played the last match of his career.  Gonzo is a fan favorite, with a historically great forehand that propelled him to finals at the 2007 Australian Open and the 2008 Olympics.  He won tour-level titles over a ten-year span.

Next month, the man in the limelight will be Ivan Ljubicic.  He doesn’t exactly qualify as a “fan favorite,” but tennis aficionados have grown to appreciate his deadly service accuracy, beautiful one-handed backhand, and intelligence on and off the court.

Men’s tennis is in the age of the veteran.  Even though we’re talking about 20-somethings and a few 30-year-olds, virtually every player at the top of the game five years ago is still in the mix today.  With the exception of Andre Agassi, every top-ranked player from the ten years is still active.

And fans love veterans.  The current state of the ATP is tailor-made for fan interest.

There are two things going on here.  One is simply a matter of familiarity.  If you lost interest in tennis for the last five years, you might be surprised to find Mario Ancic out of the game, Arnaud Clement still in it, and Andy Roddick well out of the top ten, but the cast of characters would be immediately recognizable.  It’s like a television soap opera–you only have to watch an episode or two before you’re back in the swing of things.

The other factor is what we might call the “Agassi effect.”  In the late 80’s and early 90’s, Agassi was the stereotypical brash youngster, offending the effete and challenging Wimbledon’s all-white rule.  A decade and a half later, he was perhaps the most popular player in the game, the very picture of sportsmanship and class.  Few players undergo such a radical transformation in the eyes of the public, but the general direction is very common.

Only a few years ago, Rafael Nadal was a divisive figure, mocked by many for his sleeveless tops and bulging biceps.  More recently, Novak Djokovic was widely disliked.  I’m sure detractors are still out there, but they are much quieter.  Think back to the early days of just about any veteran’s career–Andy Roddick was exciting to American fans, objectionable to most everybody else.  Lleyton Hewitt was another Agassi, and he didn’t grow out of it as quickly.

Yet for all that, can you think of a player who has gotten less popular as he ages?  Perhaps this phenomenon is unique to individual sports.  In team sports, some figures seem to attract fans, but others lose them, as they sign mega-contracts with new teams, becoming viewed as sellouts.  (Or worse, if they take the mega-contract, then never perform as well again.)

The phenomenon of gaining fans with age isn’t limited to men–veteran WTA players experience it, as well.  It seems like Kim Clijsters was better loved upon her return to the game than she was the day she retired.  Even the Williams sisters seem to have fewer detractors these days than they did several years ago.  But while the WTA has its share of vets, it has far fewer players who have persisted at the top of the game.

Only two players from the 2007 year-end top ten (Maria Sharapova and Marion Bartoli) are in the top ten of today’s WTA rankings.  Most of the WTA’s vets have hung around on the fringes of the game’s best for years.  Li Na, Sam Stosur, and Vera Zvonareva have all given us their share of highlights, but to extend my soap opera analogy, they are peripheral characters who star in a few episodes, only to disappear into the background again.  Someone who hasn’t watched women’s tennis for a few years would have a hard time catching up.

Of course, none of this is to say that men’s tennis is inherently better.  At various times in the past, the WTA has had a stronger stable of perennial stars, and when that is the case, it rakes in the ratings.  Victoria Azarenka may not be as obviously bankable as a charmer like Caroline Wozniacki or a cover girl like Maria Sharapova, but by winning consistently, she gives the women’s game a head start toward developing what the ATP possesses right now.  If a few other players rise to the challenge for more than a couple months at a time, we might do more than just talk about Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal all the time.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Why the ATP is More Popular Than the WTA

  1. ChapelHeel66

    It’s interesting, because there’s popularity from the standpoint of the masses, who want recurring stars, and there’s popularity for serious followers of tennis, who I believe often like to see the guys and gals in the 10s and 20s. I get a little tired of Nadal vs. Federer. I would be much more excited about Nadal vs. Raonic or Kohlschreiber (for example).

    But regardless of whether we are talking about the general public or hardcore fans, we have to address the WTA’s web site, which is deathly slow on searches and has terrible player pages. Click on the “Players” menu item and you get a few of the WTA names in a long list (not sure why some players are excluded) while “Player Profiles” above the list shows 4 players that presumably are of interest, On my last visit, Kleybanova and van Uytvanck were in the profiles, but their names weren’t even on the list below.

    Then go to a player page. Apart from what (to me) is a disastrous layout, it’s hit or miss what information you can get. Try Monica Puig. Sure she’s only ranked #55, but she’s an up-and-comer. Her stats page has some titles and earnings information, but no match stats. Why is there a grand slam table on the stats page, but no results at other tournaments, etc? Oh, it’s because the “Results” tab has the results, and take a look at that layout! Rankings points and prize money in a giant font (twice as big as the tournament itself). Or suppose you want to look at photos of Monica Puig…not a bad idea. Click on “Photos” and you get what looks to be a list of news stories. Sure, Monica’s photo is somewhere in there, but be prepared to hunt for it. Lest you think this is only about Monica Puig, the WTA’s site has no Match Stats for Venus Williams! But don’t worry, you can get full match stats for Mandy Minella, who struggles to hold on to her 106 ranking *though don’t expect any match stats from prior years, or by surface).

    The WTA site doesn’t seem to have a system for which players are listed on the Players tab, which ones have match stats, etc. It certainly isn’t based on rankings or popularity.

    Now compare Federico Delbonis, the current ATP #55, at the ATP’s web site. No disrespect to Delbonis, but he is a largely unknown player (except perhaps in Argentina)…yet you can learn almost anything you want to know about him, including his match stats (broken down by surface) for every year he has been a pro. Photos are right there in a little window to the right, and the photos all have Delbonis in them (no hunting).

    Maybe the WTA has made an economic decision to not have a particularly user-friendly or informative web site, on the theory that most people (in the U.S.) watch tennis twice a year (Wimbledon and the U.S. Open), and don’t require much info. But shouldn’t they aspire to more?

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