How Tennis Became the Sport of the Summer

A young generation of tennis stars is bringing fresh energy and a new approach to embracing – and capitalising on – the public interest in their lives.

Following the quiet luxury boom of 2023, it’s unsurprising that tennis, a sport long associated with wealth and social status, has made a jubilant comeback in the public consciousness. Not since the golden days of the 2000’s ‘Big Four’ (Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray) has the sport witnessed such a huge surge in popularity.

Behind this revival is a younger generation of tennis stars bringing fresh energy and a new approach to embracing – and capitalising on – the interest in their public lives. Following a slew of retirements by stalwarts including Roger Federer and Serena Williams, a changing of the guard ensued, planting the seeds for how tennis will look in the decade to come.

Foreseeing this shift in 2022, Netflix joined the ATP on tour and shot the popular series Break Point, following several up-and-coming players as they navigated both their professional and personal lives. Jumping off the success of the series, the featured players amassed huge social media followings, creating a large audience of people who are hungry for more information about them.

Zendaya and Josh O'Connor in 'Challengers' directed by Luca Guadagnino. Image courtesy of MGM. All rights reserved.

In the past, tennis players have remained relatively quiet about their personal lives, letting their accomplishments speak for themselves. It wasn’t until the ’80s when Billie Jean King, who’d been of the sport’s most prominent players for decades, came out as gay – and only after being outed in the media. Compare that treatment to today: in 2022, Russian tennis star Daria Kasatkina, ranked world number 13, confirmed her relationship with Olympian Natalia Zabiiako via Instagram, where the two now post their travels on tour to over 300,000 followers.

Noticing the benefits that come by sacrificing a degree of privacy, players are now capitalising on the public’s growing interest in them. Twenty-five-year-old Greek tennis player Stefanos Tsitsipas embodies this modern shift, with over 186,000 YouTube followers watching ‘A Day in the Life’ on the ATP Tour videos. There’s also 20-year-old American player Coco Gauff, who posts her outfit details and thrift hauls alongside her match highlights to more than 600,000 TikTok followers.

Zendaya, Josh O'Connor and Mike Faist in 'Challengers' directed by Luca Guadagnino. Image courtesy of MGM. All rights reserved.

Whereas in the past only top players were offered lucrative deals with sporting brands, this new surge has created a wave of economic opportunities for more players to cash in on, from both sporting brands and luxury houses. May alone saw both Loewe and Gucci release campaigns with two of the biggest stars of this new generation of tennis players. Loewe featured 21-year-old American Ben Shelton in its campaign promoting its latest collaboration with Swiss sporting company On, while Gucci announced 22-year-old Italian Jannik Sinner, a house ambassador for the past three years, was the star of its newest campaign. Sinner took to the Roland Garros court in Paris last week with his tennis gear not in the usual sports duffle but in a new Gucci white leather bag.

Adding to the hype is Luca Guadagnino’s recent film Challengers, whose lingering visuals of the main actors, combined with a heady soundtrack, sparked viral discourses on social media. Guadagnino capitalised on the sport’s increasing interest and cemented its place as summer’s sexiest sport. As one Letterboxd reviewer aptly commented, “Everything is sex, except sex, which is tennis.” Even Zendaya’s press tour outfits, including custom-made Lacoste, triggered a wave of social commentary and articles on how to achieve the best “tennis core” looks for summer.

Although tennis’s newfound mainstream popularity is evident in the millions of social media followers whom this new generation of players has amassed and the hundreds of thousands of views on tennis core TikTok, it remains to be seen if the elitism of the sport will wear thin. Once a game purely for the upper class who had ample time to master a sport, which averages three hours a match, it’s worth questioning whether the rise in popularity will lead to a democratization of the sport, or if the elitism is in fact the draw card to its popularity, à la quiet luxury.

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