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.