How do you thrive in a global economy? Tennis provides a source of guidance and optimism.
This story appears in the Nov. 13, 2017, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
This week marks the last tennis tournament of 2017, the ATP Tour's World Tour Final. It's fitting that this capstone event takes place in London, voted, as it's been, the World's Most Powerful Global City six years running. In London the eight players in the field hail from eight different countries. Scan the top 25 players in the ATP rankings and, save Antarctica, you'll find representatives from every continent.
As presidents, prime ministers, chancellors and CEOs around the globe confront a towering challenge of our time—how do you transition safely, let alone thrive, in a global economy—tennis provides a source of guidance and optimism. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a sector that's made a more successful transformation from parochial to panglobal.
If soccer has always promoted itself as the "world's game," tennis had no such pretensions or ambitions. For most of the sport's history, a few entrenched powers dominated. But that power structure is as obsolete as the wood racket. Australian men won 32 of the 40 majors held during the 1960s. They've won zero since 2002. From 1974-99, 16 of the 26 year-end No. 1 players were American. Today there is one American in the top 10. The women's game is comparably diverse. In 2017 the four major events were won by an African-American titan (Serena Williams), a Latvian (Jelena Ostapenko), a Spaniard (Garbiñe Muguruza) and another African-American (Sloane Stephens).
As tennis spread beyond the usual strongholds, recent champs have come from Belgium and Belgrade, from Wuhan and Minsk. As more countries have become home to elite players, the tournaments have followed. In 1997 there were 29 tournaments held in the U.S. Today there are 14. Good-bye Hilton Head, Scottsdale and Chicago. Hello, Chennai, Istanbul and Tianjin.
This mirrors macroeconomic trends. In 1960, U.S. GDP represented 40% of global GDP. By 2014 the U.S.'s economic contribution was half that. The free movement of capital, people and goods across the world has seen an unprecedented push-back recently, headlined first by Brexit and then by the U.S. presidential election.
At first tennis, too, tried to resist these forces. There were isolationist and nativist proposals, such as dividing the circuit into "regional tours." This way, as a U.S. tournament promoter puts it, "I would have players I could sell and not a field filled full of --ovas and --enkas." Thankfully that idea failed.
For all the tensions and missteps, globalized tennis has been a success, an exercise in free trade, in open society, in meritocracy distilled to its essence. The sport has penetrated new markets and availed itself to new consumers. Unlike other sports, tennis has the flexibility to move tournaments to emerging regions. When tennis wants a beachhead in Shanghai, it sanctions a new tournament and the quality of the product can largely stay the same.
This planet-spanning has helped the core product. The heightened competition, the deepening talent pool, have made everyone better. It's also fostered innovation. If tennis players once left home in search of tax shelters, they now do it to seek out new training conditions and better instruction. In 2012, Serena Williams took on a French coach in part because she wanted "to see how the competition is working and thinking."
This all comes, of course, with an assist from technology. It's never been easier for fans to follow their favorite players. It's never been easier for players to become global brands. Rafael Nadal may play only three tournaments all year in the United States and two in Asia. But he can use social media to "scale," to connect with fans year-round and worldwide. The ATP Tour has 1.3 million Twitter followers; Nadal is closing in on 15 million. Likewise the social media reach of Roger Federer exceeds that of the ATP Tour, Tennis Channel and four majors combined.
In fact Federer is the encapsulation of a global sport. He's from Switzerland, keeps a residence in Dubai and has a charitable foundation focused on Africa. His coach is Croatian, his trainer Swiss, his agent American. Fluent in multiple languages, he doesn't limit himself to officially sanctioned events, having his own (wildly successful) personal exhibition tour in South America and, this fall, founding the Laver Cup, a weekend event recalling golf's Ryder Cup that pits European players against their counterparts from the rest of the world.
The idea that a superstar—or any player—can ply their trade in any country, not only benefiting their own brand but also that of the entire sport and industry? That's a point that shouldn't be lost in today's climate. It all highlights a stubborn tennis irony: So often considered stodgy and transition-bound, a redoubt of the establishment, the sport has long possessed a mean progressive streak. Long before it was voguish, Martina Navratilova and Arthur Ashe were among the first athletes to use their platforms for social and political activism. Thanks to Billie Jean King and the push for gender equity, tennis, alone among major sports, pays equal wages to women and men. And now tennis—first by accident and then by design—is again on the vanguard, this time for global trade and competitiveness.
This highlights another tennis irony: In a sport predicated on precise boundaries and lines, borders have never meant less or been more fungible. For our world's economies, the same should be true.
Aryeh B. Bourkoff is the founder and CEO of LionTree LLC, a global investment and merchant bank, focused on media, technology and telecommunications.