Undivided devotion is usually associated with team sports. Travel hundreds of kilometers to observe your heroes, support them against all odds. Give a child the name of a favorite player. To tattoo.
Such displays of allegiance and love are not traditionally associated with tennis players.
Yet Roger Federer and Serena Williams – two superstars who retired this month – have drawn affection like few others.
And it seemed fitting that two people born 49 days apart, who enjoyed prominent parallel careers, called it a day within weeks of each other.
“These two players are irreplaceable. I don’t think there is any doubt about that,” said John McEnroe, another legendary tennis figure.
Williams, a 23-time Grand Slam singles champion who turned 41 this week, bid farewell amid emotional scenes at the US Open.
Three weeks later, 20-time winner Federer, also 41, did the same at the Laver Cup in London.
Both occasions were full of pomp and ceremony, celebration and reflection. But above all love.
Much of the adoration is due to their extraordinary success on the pitch, but also to their personalities and star quality.
“It’s going to be a big void to fill, no doubt,” said Merrick Haydon, managing director of the London office of international sports marketing agency Revolution.
“Some fans will stay with the game forever because tennis is like all sports: when you’re in it, you’re in it.
“But there will be some who will give up.
“There’s no doubt that some won’t be waking up at 3 a.m. to watch games and maybe planning their vacations around major tennis like they used to.”
Before all of Williams’ games in New York there was a buzz outside Arthur Ashe Stadium, with many fans wearing Serena t-shirts in tribute to a player who was a huge inspiration. especially to African American women.
Printed slogans included ‘Serena. Wife. The myth. The Legend’ and ‘Shameless Grandeur’. Others simply said “GOAT”.
The commitment to follow Federer was clear at the O2 Arena.
The Fed Heads – an international touring troupe from Switzerland, Japan, Greece, Poland, Thailand and India – were a palette of red and white.
Caps, T-shirts, scarves, flags, even homemade earrings. And almost all sporting a set of initials: RF.
Federer’s mother and daughter Kaori and Sakiko Hosokawa, who traveled near Tokyo, said tennis wouldn’t be the same without him.
“Roger makes my life wonderful and precious,” Kaori said. “He’s the reason I started watching tennis.”
Others claimed they would watch less tennis in the absence of the superstar pair.
“The only reason I watch tennis is because of Serena and Venus, to see them do their thing,” said Williams super fan Jennifer Chenier of Houston, Texas.
Many had traveled thousands of miles to New York and London to see their hero one last time – at great expense.
The first batch of tickets for Federer’s farewell were available between £40 and £510. Following the announcement of his retirement, some of the golden tickets were being offered on resale platforms for over £1,000 each.
Alex Gough, an avowed East Midlands ‘diehard’ Federer fan, was one of the dreamers willing to spend big to be there.
The damage to his wallet for a ticket? £600.
“The first 48 hours I wondered if I had spent too much,” he said. “I had been to Wimbledon several times but never managed to see Federer because he played on another day or on another court.
“It was the last chance saloon. It was worth every penny.”
Jet-setters also shell out on travel, hotels, food and the range of high-end merchandise on offer.
There is another huge hole for the tennis ecosystem to fill: the money pit fueled by Federer and Williams.
The global sports market has many sub-categories – including sponsorship, broadcast rights and branding – which combine to create and sell products, from tennis tours to tournaments or individual players.
However it is analyzed, Federer and Williams are putting bums in seats – in stadiums and in front of televisions – and creating wealth in sport.
“Federer and Williams are brands in their own right, they have transcended tennis as a sport and given it a level of interest and attention that would not have been achieved without their involvement,” said the expert. in sports funding Kieran Maguire, who works at the university. of Liverpool.
“The grace, style, humor and commentary of both players has been fantastic for the sponsors, who have benefited from endorsement deals with them.
“Additionally, the tournament organizers were able to negotiate better deals with broadcasters and commercial partners because ‘Serena/Roger is playing,’ and both players are at the box office in terms of tickets and viewing figures.”
McEnroe, himself one of the biggest names in the sport in the 1980s due to his explosive nature on the pitch, says the sport will always find new stars.
“Tennis goes on no matter what, and we’ve seen it in all sports over time,” said the American, wanted by Nike and touted as tennis’ “bad boy”.
“The opportunity is there to market these young kids in a way that I don’t think we’ve been able to do before.”
Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz has long been tipped as the next ATP superstar, fulfilling his potential on the court by winning the US Open earlier this month and becoming the first teenager to be ranked the world’s number one man.
On the WTA side, Poland’s Iga Swiatek was the dominant player in 2022 and the push to bolster her global appeal included an appearance on a Times Square billboard during the US Open.
Others have also attracted considerable attention and could potentially become superstars in the years to come, including British US Open 2021 champion Emma Raducanu, four-time major winner from Japan Naomi Osaka, American teenager Coco Gauff and the Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas.
“Each era has its own heroes and each era thinks the next one won’t be as good as the present one. But a new generation of superstars is always coming,” Haydon added.
“This new breed will naturally be marketed differently and social media is now the main driver.
“It happens in two ways: one on pure athletic and sporting achievement, but which has to be aligned with their lifestyle and social environment. England footballer Marcus Rashford and F1 driver George Russell are good examples of this. examples.
“A sport as a whole – players, tournaments, sponsors – has to make that happen. It’s symbiotic.”
2021 Wimbledon runner-up Matteo Berrettini is one of the stars of a documentary about access to all areas of Netflix that the ATP and WTA hope can create new superstars and bring the sport to a different audience.
“Roger brought tennis into the homes of people who probably had never watched tennis before,” said the 26-year-old Italian.
“But I think we young players shouldn’t feel that kind of pressure – me, or all the players who are better than me, even Carlos Alcaraz, who is having an incredible season.
“I think everyone has their own path and you should be proud of what you do.”
Federer, who plans to stay around tennis in a capacity yet to be determined, dismisses concerns the sport will struggle without him and Williams.
“The game is brilliant,” he insists. “People thought the same when Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi left – then our generation came along.”
Time will tell how brilliant it is.