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ATP generations off the court

Matt Zemek

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Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

Just in case you think I’m going to write 25 articles based on Racquet Magazine’s recent Billie Jean King podcast episode… no. This piece on the ATP Tour is the third and final installment of a short series on that newsmaker podcast, which contained a lot of information, educational material, and historical perspective. 

I know Billie Jean King is a women’s tennis pioneer, but as she said about Andy Murray in the podcast linked to above, true feminists are for everyone. Being a feminist isn’t “anti-male” or oppositional, or at least, it shouldn’t have to be. Empowerment for everyone is what we are supposed to promote on this planet in this life we have been given.

I want to briefly talk about empowerment in tennis and, more specifically, on the ATP Tour.

Billie Jean King’s recent podcast appearance with Racquet Magazine was the inspiration for this brief piece, which is more of an attempt to ASK a question than to answer it.

King recalled a conversation from 1962 with Larry King, three years before they married in 1965 and formed a long and influential partnership in tennis and the business of tennis. The effects of that partnership are still felt today in the modern manifestations of what the Kings built.

BJK retold what Larry said to her about why tennis would never become a huge sport in America (presumably as a comparison with the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball):

50 percent of all players in a tennis tournament lose in the first round, Larry noted. Billie immediately knew where this was headed.

75 percent of players lose by the end of the second round of a tournament.

In applied numbers: 64 of 128 after round one of a major, 96 of 128 after round two, and then 112 of 128 after round three, which is 87.5 percent.

Larry told BJK — 57 years ago — that the top three on both tours would rule the game.

“They still do,” BJK said on the podcast.

This is not a character assessment or a hinted-at commentary on greed or narrow-mindedness among Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, or Novak Djokovic. No, it is simply meant to show that on a winner’s tour — in a sport where the end-stage players at big tournaments become the biggest names and most marketable properties in the realm — the elite players will have the most real-world power and economic clout.

The tours — men and women — won’t move or adjust in response to what the No. 50 player is saying, at least not primarily. No, they will listen to and accommodate the players who have gained prominence in the sport and whose global microphone carries more resonance.

This leads me to the basic question I want to ask in this column: When we speak about the ATP Lost Boys — the “Generation Grigor” mentioned by Andrew Burton time and again in his tweets and overall ATP analysis on a larger scale — how much has this generation’s failure to perform ON the court cost that same generation OFF the court?

A follow-up question: How different would the worlds of tennis governance and ATP player activism be if Marin Cilic and David Goffin (shown in the photo attached to this story) had combined to win eight or nine majors between them, or if Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov had done something similar?

I don’t claim to know what the answer would be. It is merely worth asking the question for now.

One more point about the Billie Jean King podcast in relationship to these questions: BJK noted that when she and her contemporaries formed the women’s tennis tour in the early 1970s, she was able to convince her peers and the next generation after hers, which consisted primarily of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.

King also remarked on the experiences of trailblazers in other women’s sports, such as Julie Foudy in women’s soccer. Foudy’s experiences in educating and leading other women’s athletes also involved a measure of success in convincing peers and second-generation athletes to support the cause of building a transformative movement.

The stumbling block, King said, in this process of creating sustained multi-generational change and reform among athletes in professional sports was the THIRD generation. The first two generations, as the foundational members of a new effort to revolutionize a sport’s economic incentives or overall visibility, often buy into the mission and its goals. The third generation — which derives more of the economic benefits created by the activism of the first two generations — lacks the same zeal or awareness needed to continue the fight. This isn’t an indictment of third generations so much as an explanation of how circumstances can and do change. The natural momentum of a movement at its point of origination will generally be a lot stronger than 15 years later — maybe not always, but usually.

Processing this reality in and through the prism of ATP generations — Generation Grigor** in relationship to Generation Fed and Generation Rafa — is certainly worth thinking about.

** NOTE: Generation Fed = players born from 1979-1983; Generation Rafa = players born from 1984-1988; Generation Grigor = players born from 1989-1993; Generation Nick = players born from 1994-1998.

Let the conversation continue.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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