Stranger Things in Tennis

Stranger Things In Tennis: Men & Women Benefit From Each Other

By Amy Lundy

Photo of Ashleigh Barty and Coco Gauff Exhibition at 2019 Winston-Salem Open

Photo of Ashleigh Barty and Coco Gauff Exhibition at 2019 Winston-Salem Open

Men’s tennis does not need women. Women’s tennis does not need men. The tours are marginally profitable on their own.

But the reality is, they shine brighter together.

The media attention, the fan focus and the general intrigue ramps up significantly during the Grand Slams, as well as other large co-ed events like the BNP Paribas Open and the Miami Open

At the moment, the ATP Tour is doing okay. The WTA somewhat less so-- for whatever reason. But when the two groups come together, they crush.

Record-Breaking US Open

As tennis soaks in the afterglow of a hugely successful US Open, it’s time to take stock in what’s working in this sport.

Certainly the Grand Slams work. They draw global interest, buzz on social media, ticket sales and TV ratings. This year’s US Open drew over 737,000 fans-- a record-- and the US TV ratings soared for both men’s and women’s matches, according to information released by ESPN.

It’s time to harness what’s right about these spectacles and spread it to the other events which are, at times, struggling to stay relevant and compete with other forms of entertainment in a digital world.

The Opposite-Gender Exhibition

A sneaky phenomenon continued to manifest itself during this year’s US Open preseason:  A women’s exhibition match at a men’s tournament attracted more hype, more interest and more money than matches of the main event.

In short, the exhibitioners became the headliners.

At the ATP Tour’s Winston-Salem Open, American prodigy Coco Gauff beat Australian star-on-the-comeup Ash Barty in front of a sold-out crowd, while men playing on nearby courts drew less interest.

And by way of appearance fees, Gauff and Barty likely made more money in that one match than they would have made playing an entire tournament at the WTA’s new Bronx Open, which was happening at the same time.

On television, Tennis Channel cut away from men’s action to the Gauff-Barty exhibition, showing the entertaining match in its entirety.

It wasn’t a first for this kind of thing. Earlier this year at the ATP’s Dell Technologies Hall of Fame Open in Newport, tournament organizers brought in young WTA stars Amanda Anisimova and Danielle Collins for an exhibition.

The fascination with a women’s match in the middle of a men’s tournament flies in the face of what former Indian Wells CEO Raymond Moore said about men “carrying the sport.” (He was later forced out over that remark.)

Before you think this is just about women, know that the same thing happens in reverse.

For years at the Connecticut Open, which until this year had been the WTA’s warmup for the US Open, sessions featuring the men’s legends were the top draws. The Volvo Car Open in Charleston brings in men’s legends to supplement the WTA action, as does the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic.

Putting opposite-gender matches in the middle of a Tour event-- Problem? Maybe not.

The sport should harness this phenomenon and use it to springboard into greater things.

One idea would be to forget the “exhibition” status, and offer up matches that count for points and prize-money.

What about dovetailing an eight-player WTA round-robin at the Monte Carlo Masters.

A few ATP matches mixed into the WTA’s Volvo Car Open in Charleston would draw like firecrackers in South Carolina.

This sport needs to get creative and shake up the formats. There are no rules that can’t be changed.

Pride and Stubbornness

Tennis would benefit greatly if men and women would put aside any negative emotions and work together. It’s just good business.

Women’s professional tennis often takes an attitude of “sisters doing it for themselves”-- an admirable stance espoused by Billie Jean King. But if the men are doing something well, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel just to be different. A prime example: The tack-sharp ATP website, in comparison to the clunky WTA website. 

The men do it, too. Upon hearing that the women were commanding more prize money for their season-ending WTA Tour Finals, they moved their year-end event away from a popular and successful spot in London at the O2-- as they chased a bigger payday in Turin, Italy. Alpha males.

The point here is that there’s some one-up-manship (and womanship) between the tours. Even ATP Council Member Vasek Pospisil acknowledged as much at the US Open when he said he has reached out to leaders on the women’s side.

“What affects one side affects the other. It just makes sense to collaborate and communicate, especially at the Grand Slams. Obviously the ATP and WTA Tour are separate. They have their separate tournaments, their separate tours. There are some combined events. If you talk about the Grand Slams, it’s one tournament with women and men. I just feel like it’s counterproductive to not communicate with them, to be honest,” Pospisil said.

That’s a start, but the leaders of this sport really need to get aggressively creative.