The Dirt on the French Open

Earlier this month, as the French Open and the summer peak of the professional tennis season loomed, the U.S. marked a sobering milestone. For the first time in almost 40 years—since tennis's computerized ranking system was devised—no American man or woman ranked in the top 10 of their respective tours. This week, as the French Open is underway, the U.S. got a slight reprieve when Mardy Fish earned enough points to squeak into the No. 10 spot on the ATP list. Fish is the highest-seeded American in the Roland Garros men's field; on the women's side, no American was ranked high enough to be seeded.

Despite the dearth of Americans on the red dirt of Philippe Chartrier, Roland Garros' 1928-vintage center court, American fans will be watching … and watching. The French Open is being shown in the U.S. on ESPN2, Tennis Channel, and NBC (during weekends) in coverage that starts each morning at about 5 a.m. Eastern Time and stretches across the various partners past 6 p.m. On TV, a popular American player will remain front and center, regardless of what's actually happening on court: former WTA pro and veteran broadcaster Mary Carillo has joined Tennis Channel, hosting the cable network's live French Open tournament desk, conducting interviews, and handling play-by-play duties during select matches. Fan favorite Carillo will continue her role later this year at the U.S. Open.

The second big French Open drama this year, apart from the hide-and-seek-Americans story line, involves Novak Djokovic. Djokovic—the Serbian superstar long known as the third wheel to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal—is, at 41-0, fast closing in on John McEnroe's 42-0 season-opening streak, a record that has stood since 1984. Djokovic is six wins shy of the all-time Open-era record for winning streaks in men's tennis. The Australian Open winner has beaten "King of Clay" Nadal in clay court finals in the most recent events the pair played. If he defeats Nadal at Roland Garros, the sky's the limit for new global endorsement deals.

Djokovic's current endorsement commitments, with the likes of Head and Sergio Tacchini, are thought to net him close to $11 million annually. So far in 2011, on the court, Djokovic has earned about $5.5 million in prize money, blowing away Nadal ($2.7 million) and Federer ($1.4 million).

Purses Are Growing Fast

Tennis purses continue to grow year after year, especially in the sport's four Majors. The men's and women's singles champions at the French Open will each receive $1.7 million, up from $1.4 million last year, with total prize money increasing to $25 million, from $20.7 million in 2010. The purse for Wimbledon next month will be $23.9 million, up 6.5 percent from last year, with the men's and women's singles champions each pocketing $1.8 million, up 10 percent.

While it's not a factor at the French Open, the U.K.'s policy of taxing endorsement income might cause several of the world's top tennis players to avoid playing tournaments in Britain, including next month's Queen's Cup, the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, and possibly, the 2012 Olympic Games. U.K. rules require that men and women competing—or even just practicing in the country—are taxed a proportion of their income from sponsorships and endorsements, even if those deals have nothing to do with Britain.

Across the world, tennis—and the men's ATP World Tour in particular—has been gaining popularity, In 2009 the ATP drew a record 4.4 million fans, a 7 percent increase over 2008. It maintained its high numbers in 2010, with 4.34 million tournament attendees.

While Americans are scarce atop global tennis rankings, signs of encouragement for the sport abound domestically. In March, the Tennis Industry Assn., the sport's nonprofit trade group, announced a 46 percent gain in U.S. tennis participation since 2000, making tennis the country's fastest-growing, traditional participation sport over the past decade. (Racquetball came in second, at 3 percent.) In total, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) estimates that 30 million people played tennis at least once in 2010.

Junior tennis participation numbers are up significantly, and there is an across-the-board commitment among America's top coaches and sanctioning bodies to bring more top American prospects together to train—especially on clay—long thought to be one of the foundations of Europe's tennis success. Former pro Patrick McEnroe, who heads up the USTA's player development program, and USTA director of coaching Jose Higueras, among other leaders in the sport, are advocating the development of an American tennis federation that oversees junior training nationwide, rather than leaving player development to private academies such as the IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida.

A Construction Boom in Clay Courts?

A further key factor in developing more top-level clay court players in the U.S.? Building more facilities. While there are 400,000 hard courts in the U.S., according to the Wall Street Journal, there are only 30,000 clay courts. In 2009, the U.S. had only one junior clay court tournament. Now, there are five.

WTA Tour Chairwoman and CEO Stacey Allaster recently unveiled a new worldwide WTA ad campaign, featuring 38 current and up-and-coming female tennis stars.

Under the tagline "Strong is Beautiful," the new WTA ad campaign includes TV, print, and digital ads, as well as social media, and will appear in 80 global markets on 11 platforms over the next two years. Allaster notes that the campaign is primarily aimed at converting casual tennis fans, who perhaps watch only Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, into "diehards who follow the entire women's tennis tour."

The WTA will make the campaign available to tournament organizers in 33 countries, which underscores the tour's ever-growing global reach: Of the 57 tournaments in which it participates in 2011, only 11 events are held in the U.S. This year, for example, the WTA season-ending championships will be held in Istanbul, with total prize money close to $5 million. That tournament follows on the heels of a top-tier event in Beijing. As Chinese tennis player Na Li points out in one spot: "China is a country of 1.3 billion people. Yet we've never had a No. 1 player or Grand Slam champion. No pressure."

Caroline Wozniacki, one of the WTA stars featured in the ad campaign, entered the French Open Sunday as the No. 1 seed. As USA Today notes, Wozniacki's "sunny disposition, pleasing looks, and youth haven't gone unnoticed by sponsors."

Wozniacki currently has endorsement deals with roughly a dozen companies, including previous sponsors Sony Ericsson, Adidas (ADS:GR), and Rolex, and new 2011 backers Yonex (7906:JP), Turkish Airlines, Compeed, and Oriflame (ORI:SS). The deals, combined with appearance fees, earn her about $10 million to $12 million annually, with Oriflame coming in at the top end. Wozniacki will appear in Oriflame advertising and catalogues, endorsing the brand's cosmetics, nutritional wellness range, and jewelry.

Sharapova Wears Tiffany to Work

Long-time endorsement darling Maria Sharapova knows a little something about jewelry, too. During her French Open matches, Sharapova is sporting $3,200 diamond earrings from Tiffany (TIF), one of the many sponsors that put the hard-hitting Russian native at the top of the WTA off-court earning charts.

In February, after a long debate over whether to move the French Open from Paris' city center to outlying sites such as Disneyland Paris or Versailles, the French Tennis Federation decided to keep the tournament at Roland Garros, where the clay-court major had been held since 1928.

Upgrades to the facility—the smallest of tennis's four Majors—will cost $370 million, about half of what it would cost to move the tournament. The five-year project will cover almost 35 acres and include 35 outside courts, a new 5,000-seat stadium, a new press center, and a retractable roof for Philippe Chartrier.

Botanical garden neighbors and such players as Amelie Mauresmo strongly oppose the expansion, as do more than 35,000 people who have signed an online petition against the renovations. Roland Garros is to tennis what Fenway Park is to baseball. No matter how cramped and creaky it is, the site personifies the global sports identity of the City of Light. Moving it outside Paris is as unthinkable as it would be to ship the Red Sox to Salem.

As FFT General Director Gilbert Ysern succinctly puts it: "We have decided to remain different and preserve our personality."

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