Your Serve: Rage Against the (Marketing) Machine
A longtime tennis journalist says let’s not ‘create’ the next American star, but let young pros develop their own personalities.
AUGUST 25, 2001, TWO DAYS BEFORE THE START OF US OPEN: Andy Roddick, 18, stands on the court of Arthur Ashe Stadium, not yet a year removed from winning the tournament’s junior championship. In the 11 months since, he accomplished a few eye-catching results, but nothing that should have predicated this moment: Standing center-stage at Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day, facing Andre Agassi in the event’s ultimate expo match.
Roddick wears a body microphone, but doesn’t talk much. He is playing at playing in front of thousands of young fans, but he doesn’t entertain much. If not for the presence of John McEnroe in the umpire’s chair, one might wonder if the moment would include any banter at all. Roddick was put on this stage to match Agassi, one of the most entertaining players in the sport’s history, not just shot for shot, but wit for wit and gag for gag. As Agassi quips and jests, and as McEnroe jokingly bellows that Roddick’s strong serves are “clearly wide” and “clearly long,” the young pre-star is clearly uncomfortable and unsure of himself.
My intent is not to criticize Roddick’s performance that day, but rather to question the marketing machine that created the spectacle in the first place. You can’t fault the sentiment. The U.S.’s golden age of men’s open tennis was waning; Jim Courier and MaliVai Washington were retired, and Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, and Todd Martin were no longer predictable forces on tour. American tennis was in an anxious state. No one knew who could possibly replace these players in the marketing playbook.
Then this kid Roddick wins the US Open junior title and a few impressive tour matches, and suddenly the sport manufactures a limelight that he never asked to step into. To even the most casual bystander, the impetus is obvious: U.S. tennis wants to create a superstar to take the reins from the horses of the 1990s. So they put a kid front-and-center and asked him to wear Andre Agassi’s shoes.
For a long time after, it seemed there was a part of Roddick that felt obligated to live up to that charge. He also seemed not sure how to, because his personality was not Agassi’s personality, his game was not Sampras’ game, and he didn’t much resemble his other predecessors, either. He represented a new era, but was asked to sustain the old.
The effects of this were clear for years. Roddick was great at winning matches, especially long ones, and at wowing crowds with increasingly hard serves. He earned a US Open title, won Davis Cup matches, and represented the only credible threat to Roger Federer in his prime. But he appeared uncomfortable as an entertainer, and uneasy prolonging a retired generation’s legacy.
Fortunately for Roddick, at some point mid-career he decided to just be himself on court — loud with the racquet, quiet with his words (albeit not when barking at umpires). And this was much more pleasant to watch. He was just Andy. It’s something tennis should have let him be when he was perhaps too young to know to choose that on his own.
SEPTEMBER 5, 2012, DAY 10 OF THE US OPEN: Roddick has just lost to Juan Martin del Potro and is now retired from tennis. At his final post-match press conference as a pro player, a reporter asks who the next big American player will be — out of all the young talent on tour, out of all the promising juniors rising through the rankings, “Who can fill your shoes?”
Roddick pauses, as if reflecting on people relaying that responsibility on him 11 years earlier, and the unnecessary pressure that created on his young career.
“Let’s not do ‘the next,’” Roddick replies. “Let’s let them have their own personality, and let’s let them do their own thing and let them grow…. There is no filling shoes. I think we’ve got to be looking for individuals, not clones.”
He’s right. It’s an important thing, letting young players grow into their own image, rather than someone else’s. Too many times we see a brand molded to fit a successful marketing strategy, rather than the other way around — and tennis can be just as guilty of that as B-level marketing agencies.
Just develop the kids as tennis players who can compete on a global court, and let the other stuff ferment on its own. Then we’ll have genuine personalities to market, which will be far more beneficial for everyone involved.
Chris Nicholson is a freelance tennis writer and photographer based in New York City. He is a former editor for Tennis magazine and author of the book Photographing Tennis: A Guide for Photographers, Parents, Coaches & Fans.
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About the Author
Chris Nicholson is a contributing editor of RSI magazine.