Serena Saves American Tennis But Remains Underpaid

Serena captures her 6th Wimbledon trophy and wins all four Grand Slam Tournaments in succession for the second time in her career (Photo Credit: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Serena captures her 6th Wimbledon trophy and wins all four Grand Slam Tournaments in succession for the second time in her career (Photo Credit: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

After capturing her 6th Wimbledon championship, Serena Williams has won all four Grand Slam tournaments in succession for the second time in her career. She previously accomplished this feat more than a decade earlier, between the 2002 French Open through the 2003 Australian Open. At 33 years and 289 days old, Serena becomes the oldest ladies Wimbledon champion in history, edging out 9-time Wimbledon singles’ champion Martina Navratilova by 26 days.   Serena has now won 21 Grand Slam singles tournaments, just three behind Margaret Court’s 24 titles and one behind Steffi Graf’s 22 major wins. At 33, Serena continues to defy logic and has gotten stronger with age; her sustained run of success for two decades has firmly established her as one of the world’s greatest all-time athletes.

Yet, even though she has dominated for so long, Serena Williams does not receive the sponsorship support as some of her peers across all platforms. Maria Sharapova, who has won only five career grand slam singles titles, made $22 million in off-court money in 2014, while Serena, despite her rabid popularity, “only” made $11 million in endorsements. Serena’s career on-court earnings of over $71 million almost double that of Sharapova’s $36 million. Head-to-head, Serena has defeated Sharapova 17 straight times, including the 2015 Wimbledon Semifinal in straight sets. Other elite athletes earn substantially more off of the playing field than Serena, who has a strong international presence and a personable character.

ON-COURT SUCCESS

2015 marks Serena’s 20th professional year in tennis; she played in her first professional tournament when she was just 13 years old and won her first Grand Slam tournament four years later at Flushing Meadows in 1999. Her second grand slam win came at the 2002 French Open, 10 tournaments after her first major title. To this day, the span between her first and second championships marks her LONGEST ever stretch without a grand slam win.

Since 1945, no other tennis player, male or female, has approached Serena’s high level of play for this long. Court won her grand slam tournaments between 1960-1973 (14 years). Graf did it from 1987-1999 (13 years) and she had the benefit of playing after the tragic injury to Monica Seles, who had won 8 grand slam tournaments between May 1990-January 1993. A German man stabbed Seles in the back, causing Seles to miss over two years of action and opening the path for Graf to win 11 more titles. Navratilova’s 18 grand slam tournament wins spanned 13 years (1978-1990); she reached a record 32 finals in a 20-year span (1975-1974).

Serena has started out 2015 with a 39-1 record (Photo Credit: Robert Ghement/EPA)

Serena has started out 2015 with a 39-1 record (Photo Credit: Robert Ghement/EPA)

At 33, when the overwhelming majority of female tennis players retire, Serena has continued to separate herself from the rest of the pack. Her grand slam wins have spanned 17 years, and she remains unquestionably one of the fittest players on tour. Four out of her seven match wins in the 2015 French Open happened after she lost the first set. She won two thrilling three-set matches in the 2015 Wimbledon, one of which that occurred after she trailed 3-0 in the 3rd set of her 3rd round win over Heather Watson.

This year, Serena has lost just once in 40 matches. 21 of her 39 match wins this year have come at Grand Slam tournaments. She will attempt to become the fourth female player to win a calendar-year grand slam at this year’s US Open and the first since Steffi Graf’s triumph in 1988.

Her 21 career grand slam titles are as many all of other current WTA players COMBINED. Serena has won 10 grand slam titles since 2010; no other player has won more than two during this span. She is the first tennis player – male or female – to win at least 10 grand slam tournaments in two different decades. In addition to her singles grand slam wins, she has won 13 major doubles’ titles with her older sister Venus and four total Olympic gold medals.

STRUGGLES OF AMERICAN TENNIS

Serena’s rise to immortality comes at a time when Americans have had an extremely difficult time competing at a top international level. Outside of Serena, no current American male or female is ranked in the Top 15.

From Jimmy Connors/John McEnroe to Jim Courier/Pete Sampras/Agassi to Roddick, American men’s tennis always had a contender until 2010. Not anymore. No American male has won a Grand Slam tournament since Andy Roddick’s triumph in the 2003 US Open. No other American male tennis player has reached a grand slam semifinal since Andre Agassi in 2005.

Top American hopefuls like Sam Querrey have not been able to compete with the world's best players (Photo Credit: Andrew Brownbill/AP Photo)

Top American hopefuls like Sam Querrey have not been able to compete with the world’s best players (Photo Credit: Andrew Brownbill/AP Photo)

On the women’s side, from Billie Jean King/Chris Evert to Lindsay Davenport/Jennifer Capriati/Williams sisters, American women’s tennis had elite competing talent. Serena has single-handedly kept American tennis afloat over the past 10 years, as the last American woman not named Serena to reach a grand slam semifinal was Venus Williams at the 2009 Wimbledon Final. Venus won the 2007 and 2008 Wimbledon championships. Prior to that, no other female had reached the quarterfinals since Lindsay Davenport in 2005.

In 1984, 24 American men were ranked in the world’s Top 50. In 1995, that number dwindled down to 11. At the beginning of 2015, only one, John Isner, ranked in the world’s Top 50 and was the only American male seeded at the Australian Open. The American women did not fare much better. Other than Serena’s top seed, only two other American women were seeded in this year’s Australian Open – Venus at 18 and Varvara Lepchenko at 30.

OFF-COURT EARNINGS

As she continues to dominate and reach for immortality in women’s tennis, people would expect Serena to rake in tens of millions of dollars in endorsement money. After all, athletes who dominate individual sports tend to earn enormous cash outside the playing field. Check out a few of these individual stars and their endorsement in 2015 (courtesy of Forbes):

Athlete Sport Endorsement Earnings
Tiger Woods Golf $50,000,000
Phil Mickelson Golf $48,000,000
Rory McIlroy Golf $32,000,000
Floyd Mayweather Boxing $15,000,000
Roger Federer Tennis $58,000,000
Novak Djokovic Tennis $31,000,000
Rafael Nadal Tennis $28,000,000
Maria Sharapova Tennis $23,000,000
Andy Murray Tennis $16,000,000
Kei Nishikori Tennis $15,000,000
Serena Williams Tennis $13,000,000

This list does not take into account the bloated earnings of boxers Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao who combined to bring in approximately $500 million for a 36-minute boxing fight on May 4. Additionally, not included on this list, Li Na, who has won two Grand Slam tournaments, made $7 million more in endorsements in 2014 alone than Serena, who brought in $11 million off the court that year.

Maria Sharapova earns twice as much as Serena in endorsement money; Serena has an 18-2 head-to-head record over Sharapova (Photo Credit: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images/Bongarts)

Maria Sharapova earns twice as much as Serena in endorsement money; Serena has an 18-2 head-to-head record over Sharapova (Photo Credit: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images/Bongarts)

Individual superstars who dominate individual sports generally receive tremendous recognition off of the playing field, largely because fans can directly relate to the athletes. Many team sports, especially football, baseball, and hockey, do not have numerous standout individual performers compared to those in soccer, basketball, and the individual sports listed above.

In fact, the top earning football player in endorsement money, Peyton Manning, only earned $12 million in 2015. David Ortiz, baseball’s top endorsement earner, just made $4 million off the field. No hockey players cracked the Top 50 endorsements list this year.

Yet, recognizable athletes in other team sports like soccer and basketball generate enormous revenue for their brilliance. LeBron James ($44 M) and Kevin Durant ($35 M) each respectively ranked as the 4th and 5th top off-the-field earners in the world in 2015. Cristiano Ronaldo ($27 M), Lionel Messi ($22 M), and Neymar ($17 M) each made their fair share of money off the soccer field.

This brings us back to Serena, who is an extremely recognizable athletic figure and arguably just as successful, if not more dominant, than any of these standout individual performers in any sport. She plays a sport, tennis, where everyone can clearly see her face at all times – unlike in football, baseball, and hockey – and she remains the center of attention at all times when she plays a match.

Furthermore, unlike in soccer where a major pay gap exists between men and women, men and women’s tennis players earn equal prize money for their on-court efforts. Both men and women tennis players, especially at the grand slam tournaments, play in the same venues and largely in front of the same crowds. That provides players like Serena an equal amount of exposure as male heavyweights Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. So how does Serena bring in only $13 million in endorsements, when players like Federer and Djokovic earn more than twice that amount?

After all, Serena has won more grand slam singles titles than either of those two men and won the exact same amount of prize money (1.88 million pounds) as Djokovic did for winning this year’s Wimbledon. She has an extremely strong social media presence, even compared to other top tennis players:

Player Twitter Followers Facebook Fans Instagram Followers
Serena Williams 4.82 Million 3.1 Million 1.4 Million
Maria Sharapova 1.71 Million 14.9 Million 524,000
Roger Federer 3.15 Million 14.2 Million 851,000
Novak Djokovic 4.39 Million 5.9 Million 1.1 Million
Andy Murray 3.17 Million 3.3 Million 382,000
Rafael Nadal 8.2 Million 14.4 Million 367,000

Serena has an extremely respectable public outreach and even has many of the world’s most renowned figures supporting her. In addition, she has made a strong impression in the fashion industry, even possessing her own clothing line. She has appeared on a variety of magazine covers that do not involve sports, which has helped her develop a personal brand.

Ultimately, Serena remains criminally underpaid – yes, she has enough money to last multiple lifetimes but she earns well below her true market value. Players like Sharapova and Federer, both non-Americans, earn more from U.S. companies than Serena makes domestically.

2015 Wimbledon champions Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams celebrate their titles.  Both players have a strong international presence, yet Djokovic makes far more off-the-court than Serena (Photo Credit: Thomas Lovelock/EPA)

2015 Wimbledon champions Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams celebrate their titles. Both players have a strong international presence, yet Djokovic makes far more off-the-court than Serena (Photo Credit: Thomas Lovelock/EPA)

This country should celebrate Serena as a strong symbol for capturing the American Dream. She grew up in a difficult neighborhood in Compton, California, suffered through her older sister’s murder, learned the game from her father instead of a traditional tennis academy, and has overcome racial prejudices all over the world to achieve her status.

For the most part, especially compared to other superstars like Floyd Mayweather’s domestic violence, Manny Pacquiao and Tiger Woods’ infidelities, Phil Mickelson’s link to money laundering, and Kobe Bryant’s sexual assault scandal, Serena Williams has maintained an exceptionally clean record. In the 24/7 social media world, she has avoided much negative drama and has established a positive image about herself.

Serena’s on-court accomplishments in women’s tennis will last an eternity, long after she exits this world. It’s time to recognize Serena for her contributions outside the playing surface. Corporate sponsors should line up and have Serena as one of the most visible public figures, like Federer and Rolex; Tiger Woods and Nike; Michael Jordan and his own Jumpman brand; especially due to her unprecedented accomplishments in tennis and her good standing and popularity away from the court.

While Americans as a whole have fallen off the map in international tennis, Serena has more than kept the sport afloat domestically and continues to dominate the competition well into her 30’s. The best individual athletes typically get well compensated for their achievements both on and off the court. It’s about time Serena gets her due.