Can the New Faces of Tennis Bring a Serena Williams-Level of Excitement Back to the Sport?

It was her first Grand Slam championship victory, against one of the greatest athletes of all time. But for Naomi Osaka, the Cinderella story wouldn’t go according to the fairy tale. Last September at the U.S. Open, the then-20-year-old defeated Serena Williams in an astounding victory, but the win would be overshadowed by a heated dispute between Williams and an official during the match. It led to a smashed racquet, a penalty and tears from Osaka as boos ensued from the crowd during the awards presentation ceremony.

“Part of what has made her so special is how unbelievably well she played in that U.S. Open final in an incredibly pressurized circumstance and how she handled adversity after,” United States Tennis Association chief revenue officer Lew Sherr said of Osaka’s rising stardom. “It gave you a glimpse into her personality, and this contributes to fans attaching themselves to a player.”

Despite the less-than-magical moment, Osaka’s perseverance and composure earned her newfound notoriety on and off the court. And when Nike snatched Osaka from Adidas in a surprise endorsement deal this month, it was a coup for the Swoosh.

“Nike has been committed to investing in transcendent, top-tier athletes,” said Alex Restivo, global footwear product director of Nike Court. “Tennis remains a key category to push the boundaries of sport across all markets.”

While Williams and Rafael Nadal (both Nike athletes) and Roger Federer — who partnered with Uniqlo last year — still rule the court, up-and-comers like Osaka are edging their way in.

Other notable new names in women’s include New Balance’s Danielle Collins, Nike’s Madison Keys and Fila-sponsored Ashleigh Barty of Australia. For men, Adidas’ Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Dominic Thiem are all making noise.

“What we are hoping for with this young crop is sustained excellence that will allow them to become well known,” said Sherr. “You want to see them in big moments; that’s when they are tested.”

As a whole, professional tennis is seeing success in viewership and event attendance. Last year’s U.S. Open set a record with 828,798 people, proving that the sport’s status is on the rise, which is partly due to this cast of new characters.

“We are seeing athletes’ personalities coming back into the game,” Restivo said. “The next generation grew up on social media, so they are more keen to let people in. Nick Kyrgios, Denis Shapovalov, Frances Tiafoe, Sloane Stephens are all great examples of athletes who bring their attitudes and personality out on court. We encourage this because an athlete opening up their personality leads to great product inspiration with rich storytelling.”

New Balance is seeing the benefits of working with up-and-comers firsthand with one of its newest ambassadors, 15-year-old Cori “Coco” Gauff. She has 25,000 followers on Instagram and played her first WTA tour-level match last month at the Miami Open (and won). “Young stars have an opportunity to control their messaging and speak directly to their fans on social media. Coco is informed about her social presence, so she’s able to build a deeper connection with her fan base,” said Evan Zeder, sports marketing manager of New Balance Tennis. “For this reason, it’s now more interesting to follow her journey.”

Fashion brands are also seeing the influence these tennis stars can have. Ermenegildo Zegna, for instance, signed Zverev last year to be the face of its Z Zegna line.

Still, some industry experts have their doubts that any rising talent in tennis can ring the register. “I do not expect new tennis stars to have a material impact in the U.S. Tennis footwear sales have been trending flat over the last few years,” said The NPD Group Inc. sports industry analyst Matt Powell. “Osaka, [for example], is a terrific athlete and personality, but I doubt if she can move the merchandise needle.”

Despite the critics, brands are diving deeper into the segment.

For instance, Mizuno launched its U.S. tennis footwear category with full distribution in January.

“The more visibility to a sport, the greater the opportunity for a brand to see benefits from that,” said Harper Cornell, Mizuno USA’s director of brand marketing.

Two years ago, the label partnered with the BB&T Atlanta Open to test the waters with consumers. “There had been a strong demand for us globally in the tennis footwear space. We [knew we] had this great technology, and we [were] growing in presence, so it was a great opportunity, and we found there’s an appetite,” she said.

So far, feedback has been positive, according to the company, which is putting efforts toward specialty stores and focusing on the tennis advocate. Cornell added, “We do see value in tennis, [but] we are being strategic about it. We are coming in first with footwear.”

K-Swiss, a heritage American tennis brand, is also looking to broaden its customer base in the category.

While the company has the No. 1 sell-through model in the tennis specialty retail channel with the Hypercourt Express, according to the Tennis Industry Association, it wants more.

In the last eight months, K-Swiss has been more aggressive in targeting a younger demographic through new product development and strategic programing. In September, it launched Team K-Swiss, a program that allows coaches and junior athletes to become brand ambassadors. Athletes in the Top 10 USTA Junior National singles ranking are considered for free product, while the Top 150 can receive discounted gear.

“For us, it’s filling a gap,” said Mike Miringoff, the label’s VP of sales for the Americas. “This is for future stars to get them associated with the brand.”

In addition, K-Swiss recently launched a separate tennis-focused Instagram account to show off player content. “The idea was to target players but to have a place for the younger kids to see the product and communicate. The whole idea is to build a community of consumers,” Miringoff said.

As tennis continues to evolve, part of cultivating the sport includes going outside the traditional notions of fashion. Older and younger tennis players alike are experimenting with on-court style more than ever. Gone are the days of classic matching outfits. Williams is rocking catsuits. Federer is wearing Virgil Abloh’s Off- White x Nike sneakers. Fashion has progressed, and over the past year, streetwear has become a major inspiration for the court.

For example, British skateboard brand Palace and Adidas launched an all-white capsule collection in line with the Wimbledon tournament. Supreme collaborated with Lacoste. And Kith and tennis brand Boast teamed for a special assortment surrounding the U.S. Open.

Most recently, Authentic Brand Group’s Prince has embarked on an entire lifestyle expansion influenced by streetwear, which will expand over the next year.

“Tennis is a spectator sport. It’s as strong now as it was in the past decade. … From a business point of view, it’s about capturing the casual fan who is engaged with the sport but may not be a frequent player. Those people are a huge portion of our customer base, so how we do bridge the gap?” Tyler Herring, Prince’s VP of brand and marketing, said of the venture.

To start, the company launched a capsule collection with streetwear retailer Unknwn during the Miami Open as part of its new partnership with Miami-based nightlife, restaurant and hospitality entrepreneur David Grutman.

Fila, which has been successful in capturing the millennial consumer with its revival of ’90s product, is taking its sneaker success and merging it into its tennis business. “We are having a good run at sneaker culture at large, so we are able to borrow from the DNA of what we are doing in our heritage collection and bring it over to tennis in both footwear and apparel,” said Mark Eggert, SVP of footwear design and advanced concepts. “The tennis consumer is on the same page as the athlete. They want more interesting product to challenge the typical triple white shoes that have been popular for years. We are looking to capitalize on that and build.”

But Marc Beckman, a marketing expert and CEO of DMA United, is skeptical of tennis’ overall ability to cross over due to its tight-knit community. “There’s [opportunity] to have tennis-inspired lifestyle product that translates to the hardcore athletes and the ubiquitous athleisure wearer,” Beckman said. “[But] the tennis culture is exclusionary and speaks to a wealthy audience. It hasn’t come close to realizing its potential.”

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