Where Are The Second Generation Tennis Greats?
Serena Williams’ daughter is not going to be a professional tennis player. That might seem like a facile and easy statement of a fact- after all, many children do not follow in the footsteps on their parents under normal circumstances, let alone when their mother is one of the greatest to ever grace the sport that she played in. But it is an observation that warrants further analysis. At an event the other day where I was mingling with a number of other guests who were avid tennis players like myself, the thought had suddenly occurred to me that, of all of the up and coming stars in the game today, and the top names both current and present- that neither I, nor any of my conversation partners, could name a second generation top player.
This is a strange occurrence, particularly considering that tennis was traditionally considered a sport of the aristocracy when it first arose in Renassaince-era Europe. The clearest answer I can find is that the experience of playing itself may cause an aversion among the top players to having their children follow in their footsteps.
The contrast is jarring when tennis is juxtaposed against the three most popular sports in America today- football, baseball, and basketball. Just last month, videos of a high school freshman quarterback’s first game exploded over YouTube and social media. That high school freshman’s name was instantly familiar to anyone with even the most passing knowledge of American football- Manning. This was Arch Manning, nephew of Peyton and Eli, grandson of Archie. He will potentially be the third generation of Mannings to grace the gridiron (Arch’s father, Cooper, was himself likely headed to the NFL until he suffered a career ending injury in college). Although I hadn’t known of this young Manning’s existence- it didn’t surprise me at all, how could it considering the Manning family history up to this point?
It will be nearly a decade before Arch becomes eligible to enter the NFL Draft, but I have no doubt he will get there- even if I am skeptical of grandpa Archie’s proclaiming that Arch is more advanced than Peyton and Eli were at that age- after all, I remember top tennis pro Novak Djokovic saying similar things about his younger brother Djordje, who never ranked in the world’s top one thousand in singles.
In baseball “legacy kids” are even more common, now more than ever. In his ranking of the game’s top 100 prospects, top minor league analyst Jim Callis gave the top two spots to the sons of former big leaguers- Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. and Fernando Tatis, Jr. Both made their Major League debuts this year, and look to be on the way to careers worthy of their fathers, or even better. Guerrero Jr’s Toronto Blue Jays featured two other “legacy kids”- Bo Bichette, son of former All Star Dante, and Cavan Biggio, son of Hall of Famer Craig.
With Guerrero and Tatis’ graduation to the majors, the top spot on the prospect rankings was taken by Wander Franco, who boasts an ex minor leaguer for a father and two former major leaguers for uncles. The San Francisco Giants got solid contributions this year from Mike Yastrzemski, grandson of Red Sox legend Carl. And the game’s past is littered with all time greats who came from Major League stock- Cal Ripken Jr, Ken Griffey Jr, and Barry Bonds come to mind.
So why no legacy kids in tennis? After all, tennis players are often known for having risen to greatness guided by close relatives as coaches, who they retain on well into their adulthood, when their path to the top of the sport is complete. And yet, few or none of these family coaches ever played the sport themselves. Toni Nadal, uncle of Rafa- comes the closest- he had a successful amateur table tennis career in the Nadal’s native Spain. Andre Agassi’s infamous father Mike boxed for Iran at the Olympics, but never played tennis, and Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena, first became familiar with tennis from watching TV. In some of their cases, it was more of a case of living out a tennis career vicariously through coaching their children- or, in the case of Agassi’s father, seeing tennis as a meal ticket for his immigrant family- and then being willing to push his children, especially Andre, to any lengths to make sure that ticket was punched.
Having succeeded themselves as tennis players, the need to vicariously live out that success is no longer there for the Serenas and Andres of the pro tour. Top players are also familiar with the downsides of their own sport- tennis is extremely hard to make a living on, with players even in the top 100 essentially living prize money check to prize money check, even- in the case of Jamaican pro Dustin Brown- having to live in a van. Compare to baseball and football- where the minimum salary is $500,000 per year, to say nothing of the multimillion dollar paydays that await should a player be successful enough to make it to free agency.
Furthermore, parents of high-level tennis pros can, when involved in their child’s careers, be demanding, even abusive (though not always). Andre Agassi’s harsh treatment at the hands of his father, which he described in detail in his book Open, is one of the best known examples, and in the book he was very frank in his lack of desire to see his kids play his sport, even though between him and their mother Steffi Graf, their genes would be perfect. Agassi and Graf might have a child be a professional athlete though- in baseball. Their son Jaden is ranked the top high school prospect in the state of Nevada, and top 100 in the nation, according to top high school talent evaluator Perfect Game.
Ultimately, it seems like the lack of legacy tennis talents is that the structure of professional tennis itself seems to be designed to discourage players wanting their children to follow in their footsteps. Tennis pros turned parents the odds of their child being as successful financially as they were are slim, even compared to other sports. And even if a tennis pro succeeds- tennis can be lonely- as an individual sport, the successes and failures are all your own, with no teammates (in singles at least) to share them with. And I say that as someone who has loved playing tennis more than any other sport for their entire life. But maybe someone will come along yet- perhaps the children of the Bryan brothers, who have always succeeded as a team and shared their glory, will one day dominate the doubles game like their fathers did- an all Bryan cousins Wimbledon doubles final may be decades in the future. In the meantime, tennis will continue to wait for its own Arch Manning or Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.