Roger Federer's knee surgery caught the tennis world by surprise. While the 17-time Grand Slam champion expects to miss only a month away from the ATP World Tour, his pending absence alerts us to how close tennis is to a star-power crisis.
Federer underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in Switzerland early this week. He suffered a torn meniscus after his loss to Novak Djokovic in the 2016 Australian Open semifinals.
He withdrew from the World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam and the Dubai Championships. It marks the first time in six years that Federer will miss the Dubai Championships. Through a statement his agent, Tony Godsick, issued, Federer told Ahmed Rizvi of the National: “While this is an unfortunate setback, I feel grateful that up to now I have remained mostly healthy throughout my career. My doctors have ensured me that the surgery was a success and with proper rehabilitation, I will be able to return to the Tour soon.”
Tennis stars come and go all the time. However, it's difficult to imagine what might happen if the game suffered a massive loss in superstar power all at once.
You could see evidence of Nadal's decline in his first-round loss to Fernando Verdasco at the 2016 Australian Open.
Those four players represent 59 Grand Slam singles titles. They are also the biggest names in the sport, and according to a former ESPN executive, the only bankable stars when it comes to television ratings. Three years ago, Tennis.com writer Steve Tignor interviewed Jason Bernstein, who was then the senior director of programming and acquisitions for tennis at ESPN. Bernstein is now programming director for Hawk-Eye Innovations. Bernstein told Tignor:
In general, yes, tennis has done well over the last decade. But it’s still such an individual sport that it depends on the player. Andre Agassi was as big a ratings star as any player today. The proven ratings winners for us now are the Williams sisters and Roger (Federer), and now Rafa has shown that he can bring people in. But we haven’t seen that with matches between Novak (Djokovic) and Andy (Murray) yet. Tennis can still be a challenge without a name-brand star.
Djokovic is dominating the ATP World Tour; however, Federer continues to garner more fan support. Maria Sharapova reportedly earns more in endorsement money than Serena, per The Atlantic's Marc Bain. Yet, Bernstein left Sharapova off his list of ratings winners.
New York Times writer Richard Sandomir wrote in 2014 that when it comes to women's tennis "viewership has risen and fallen almost entirely based on Serena Williams’s success."
According to Paulsen of Sports Media Watch, Williams' run for the calendar-year Slam boosted ratings for coverage of the 2015 U.S. Open by 20 percent.
After Williams lost to Roberta Vinci in the semifinals, Chris Evert described (via ESPN broadcast) the all-Italian final featuring Flavia Pennetta as "refreshing."
But ratings for the women's final tanked. They were down 64 percent over the previous year's final between Williams and Caroline Wozniacki. The Williams-Wozniacki final was also a hit in Europe, setting a new record in viewership for a U.S. Open women's match broadcast on Eurosport, per Tennis World.
Meanwhile, ratings for the men's final, between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, were up 44 percent over the 2014 match between Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic.
The quarterfinal match between Venus and Serena gave ESPN its highest rating of the tournament, per Sports Media Watch, and second-most watched match in the history of the network's tennis coverage, according to Dave Nagle of ESPN PR (via Mary Pilon of Fortune). The only ESPN telecast with higher ratings was the 2012 Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Andy Murray.
The following year, ratings were down. Murray actually won Wimbledon with a win over Djokovic in the final.
As the two youngest members of the Big Four, Murray and Djokovic are clearly tennis stars. But they haven't risen to iconic status like the Williams sisters, Federer and Nadal.
What if tennis loses these icons within the same year?
Peter Bodo of ESPN recently addressed that question. He wrote that the women's game faces a bigger void: "The future of a women's game without the Williams sisters is opaque simply because, while there are women ranked No. 2 and 3 and so forth, there appears to be no true successor comparable to a Djokovic, never mind a fleet to match the likes of the Serb, Murray and Wawrinka."
Last year, six-time Grand Slam champion Boris Becker voiced concern about the state of tennis if Federer and Nadal were to retire. Speaking to Skysports, Becker stated:
I think the men's side is in a very healthy state, we have an increase in popularity from over 10 years ago and the numbers are staggering. But the question has to be asked: what if Roger decides to quit or Rafa is not coming back? It's impossible to carry on with only Novak and Andy. You have a young group of Australians - Nick Kyrgios, Thanasi Kokkinakis, who have good personalities and are interesting to watch, but there's a gap in between of players you don't know anything about. In two or three years' time, we have to be careful.
Although Federer, Serena and Venus have addressed questions about their retirement, none of them have given any timetable. All but Venus are ranked in the top five. Venus is ranked No. 12.
Still, when you see Serena struggling with nerves and knee issues, and Federer going under the knife late in his career, the future without these stars begins to look closer than fans wish to think.
Tennis can't manufacture a superstar. The WTA Tour tries to introduce new players through its "Rising Stars" campaign. When Eugenie Bouchard reached the semifinals in three Grand Slams, the WTA seemed to have found its next big star. But like Sloane Stephens, Melanie Oudin and so many would-be superstars, Bouchard stumbled. She's now ranked No. 58.
That's where the real dearth in star power lies—in the lack of titles won. Those 59 Slam titles propelled these stars to iconic status. Besides Djokovic, the rest of the men are in the single digits. If the Williams sisters retired, Sharapova's five Slam titles would be tops in women's tennis. She's tied with Martina Hingis, who remains on the tour but no longer plays singles.
Winning wins fans. Outside of Djokovic, other players aren't winning championships at the rate of these icons.
With the 2016 Summer Olympics ahead, the retirement watch looms large. Perhaps these great champions will stick around a few more years.
Tennis could use the extra time to generate more star power.