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Players Flocked to Tennis in the Pandemic — Can Brands & Retailers Keep the Momentum Going?

It’s no secret, the pandemic has changed a lot about our world. And the tennis market is no exception.

For some consumers, COVID-induced quarantines and gym closures forced them to find new ways of working out. With outdoor sports deemed more “pandemic friendly,” tennis saw a surge of new and returning players getting into the sport, as courts have become socially distanced havens for boutique-fitness refugees and those driven stir-crazy by isolation.

According to Tom Cove, president and CEO of the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), 2020 and 2021 were the best for tennis in over 25 years, in terms of both participation and product sales. In a recent report, SFIA said that tennis participation was up 27.9% over the last two years, with 22.6 million Americans reporting they played at least once in 2021, up from 17.7 million in 2019 and up 4.5% from 2020, which saw 21.6 million Americans playing the sport.

Mark Mason, the owner of Mason’s Tennis in midtown Manhattan, said that the demand for tennis shoes is “through the roof” because so many new people are now in the market for gear. “We have players who haven’t played in 10 years, that are coming back to us for guidance on what to wear on the court. It’s exciting,” Mason said.

At Grand Central Racquet, also in midtown Manhattan, co-owner Woody Schneider told FN that 2021 was the best year his business has ever had — and the momentum has continued, as February 2022 was his best February on record. Schneider said, “I’ve never had so many people tell me they haven’t played tennis in 10 years and want to get back into the game or that they’ve always wanted to play and are ready to start. I must have heard these two statements 10,000 times over the last year.”

Emma Raducanu, of Britain, reacts after scoring a point against Leylah Fernandez, of Canada, during the women's singles final of the US Open tennis championships, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Emma Raducanu reacts after scoring a point against Leylah Fernandez during the women’s singles final of the US Open, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in New York.
CREDIT: AP

While Grand Central Racquet doesn’t carry the big major labels like Adidas and Nike, Schneider said he has found success in niche brands like Mizuno. The brand’s Wave Rider 18 style is one of his top sellers, along with Prince’s long running P22 sneaker. “The companies that I like to sell are also companies that are racket companies,” Schneider said. “I want to support the brands that keep me in business across all categories.”

Mason noted that Asics is the top-performing tennis shoe brand at his store, despite the brand being affected by the factory shutdowns in southern Vietnam. He specifically called out Asics’ Solution Speed FF and Gel Resolution 8 as standout styles. And he gave an honorable mention to the Nike Vapor Pro as another top-selling tennis styles.

Those results match the data from The NPD Group. Senior sports industry adviser Matt Powell said that in terms of the top brands in the space, Adidas still captures the largest market share in the footwear made for tennis category. Asics comes in second, followed by Nike, New Balance and K-Swiss.

As for specific top-selling performance tennis styles, Powell cited the Adidas GameCourt shoe as No. 1 in 2021, followed by the Nike Court Lite 2. Asics’ Gel Dedicate 6 and Gel Resolution 8 took third and fourth place last year, with Nike’s Air Max Volley rounding out the top five, according to NPD.

Asics' Gel-Resolution 8
Asics’ Gel-Resolution 8
CREDIT: Courtesy of Asics

But given the meteoric rise for the category, many experts believe tennis may have hit a peak in terms of popularity. “Looking at the history of tennis, participation boomed in the 1980s and ‘90s,” SFIA’s Cove told FN. “But since the start of the 2000s, the sport has struggled to report high growth rates. This makes the growth rate tennis has seen over the last two years even more phenomenal. It is inconceivable the industry could continue that momentum; it just wouldn’t make sense. I would say the growth rate may flatten in 2022 as more people return to their normal pre-COVID schedules and we learn to live with this virus.”

Nevertheless, top brands in the field are forging ahead with new tennis capsule collections, marketing initiatives and player endorsements in hopes of keeping the momentum going.

At Adidas, which has a long history in the sport, the brand is modernizing its approach by incorporating its three-loop sustainability strategy into tennis product. “By 2024, our aim is to replace virgin polyester with recycled polyester wherever possible,” Annette Steingass, senior director of tennis and court sports at Adidas, told FN. “We constantly rethink our materials as we create our seasonal collections. For example, our most recent Australian Open apparel range was made with Parley Ocean plastic. In addition, the dress that Garbine Muguruza wore at the tournament, and the tee worn by Stefanos Tsitsipas were [from our] ‘Made to be Remade’ [upcycled collection].”

February, 18 - Delray Beach: Cameron Norrie(GBR) shakes hands with Sebastian Korda(USA) after defeating him 62 16 76(4) during their quarterfinal match at the 2022 Delray Beach Open by Vitacost.com. on February 18, 2022 in Delray Beach, Florida. Credit: Andrew Patron/MediaPunch /IPX
Cameron Norrie shakes hands with Sebastian Korda after defeating him during their quarterfinal match at the 2022 Delray Beach Open on Feb. 18, 2022 in Delray Beach, Fla.
CREDIT: AP

At Asics, the footwear brand has doubled down on its focus in tennis through its “Category Offense” initiative. Kevin Powers, category director of core performance sports at Asics, said, “We have a specific group of employees focused on tennis within design, development, product, sales and marketing functions globally and regionally.”

Most recently, Asics has been developing shoes specifically targeted to different playing styles, from aggressive baseline to all-court play. Powers said this is a key story for the brand when it goes to market with new product and has shaped how it communicates to consumers.

Asics is also investing in new talent in the sport, most recently signing Matteo Berrettini in January. According to Powers, Berrettini is already ranked No. 6 in the world with his semifinal showing at the Australian Open and will continue to wear its Gel Resolution 8 sneaker.

Other new players like Berrettini are also creating excitement around the sport, especially in the men’s field, which has been dominated by the big three (Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal) for almost 20 years.

Britain’s Cameron Norrie and American Sebastian Korda were named as two players to watch. Last month, the two athletes sparred at a match for the semifinals of the Delray Beach Open. Though Korda was a finalist in the tournament last year, he was defeated by Norrie, who went on to win the tournament on Feb. 21. This was the third ATP Tour title for the 26-year-old, after lifting trophies at Indian Wells and Los Cabos in 2021.

On the women’s side, Montreal-born Leylah Fernandez, who recently signed with Lululemon in January as a face of the brand’s formal push into tennis, is creating big buzz. The 19-year-old had a breakout year in 2021, as the runner-up in the U.S. Open — a feat that put her at No. 24 in the world. British player Emma Raducanu, who beat Fernandez at the U.S. Open and is ranked No. 13 on the WTA Tour, is another star on the rise. Her U.S. Open win was the second Grand Slam tournament of her career. The 19-year-old now holds the record for the fewest majors played before winning a title.

But at Mason’s Tennis in New York, the tennis superstars — Djokovic, Federer and Nadal, who have respective shoe deals with Asics, On and Nike — are still the ones who drives sales in his store, despite the fact that they are playing fewer tournaments than in previous years.

“The shoes really sell on their own merits,” Mason said. “The shoes don’t sell based on who’s wearing what, right? Right now, it really boils down to who can get their shoes to market given all the supply chain issues.”

Leylah Fernandez, of Canada, left, and Emma Raducanu, of Britain, pose for photos after Raducanu defeated Fernandez in the women's singles final of the US Open tennis championships, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Leylah Fernandez, left, and Emma Raducanu pose for photos after Raducanu defeated Fernandez in the women’s singles final of the US Open tennis championships, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in New York.
CREDIT: AP
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