As Hollywood’s brightest stars take a professional hiatus amid the ongoing actor-writer strikes, tennis players are making headlines on newsstands across the country just in time for the 2023 U.S. Open, which goes from Aug. 23 to Sept. 10.
In recent weeks, some of the sport’s biggest names have graced the pages of the New York Times, Vanity Fair, New York Magazine, GQ, Vogue and more — like Frances Tiafoe, Tommy Paul, Coco Gauff, Jessica Pegula, Iga Swiatek, Andy Roddick and numerous others.
While tennis fanfare is nothing new, the recent trend is particularly unique given the amount of non-legacy players on full display ahead of the Open, such as Carlos Alcaraz, Coco Gauff, Iga Swiatek and Holger Rune.
Some experts attribute that to a number of factors including, in part, to shows like Netflix’s Break Point featuring a new generation of up-and-coming tennis stars, as well as stricter limitations being placed on actors during the strikes. Here’s what you need to know.
How Hollywood's strikes are impacting tennis coverage
In May, the Writers Guild of America, the union for Hollywood screenwriters, began a strike after it failed to negotiate new contracts with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the trade association responsible for negotiating contracts for many of our favorite movies and shows. Weeks later, SAG-AFTRA, the union for actors and onscreen performers, followed in their footsteps.
As part of their ongoing negotiations, both unions prohibit actors and writers from working on or speaking to journalists about union-related film, network, cable or streaming projects until the strikes are over.
That's made covering actors a bit tricky for journalists and magazine editors — especially since September issues are some of the year’s top-sellers on newsstands for most. Without being able to speak about their projects, some say it’s given athletes an opportunity to take up spaces that were previously reserved for A-list movie stars.
“Obviously, there's been a pivot to covering or featuring both athletes and musicians,” Phillip Picardi, founder of Conde Nast’s Them and former chief content officer at Teen Vogue who’s worked extensively with athletes in the fashion industry, tells Yahoo Entertainment of the shift. “It’s just easier from a marketing perspective, and less thorny for all parties involved.”
That also extends to “live events, magazine covers, speaking engagements and so forth,” he adds, noting that fashion magazines had already "been courting athletes more diligently for a number of years."
As Picardi explains, there's been a trend in the “past decade or so” where magazine covers have pivoted away from showcasing actors, models and influencers to feature athletes instead. He credits that to tennis greats like Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, among others, who may be considered "more layered" and reflective of a reader's values.
“This isn't to say models or influencers are going anywhere,” he stresses. “It's just a different kind of casting is all.” That's had a profound impact on tennis fans and players overall, other experts say.
Athletes are America's 'rock stars'
Shows like Break Point, which highlight the “full psychodrama of tennis,” as described by the NY Times, as well as McEnroe, following the career of tennis legend John McEnroe, Andy Murray: Resurfacing, chronicling Andy Murray’s injury journey between 2017-2019, Venus and Serena, centering on the lives of the famous sisters, and Naomi Osaka, highlighting her joys and struggles in the sport over two years, have added to the public interest surrounding tennis.
Brendan McIntyre, senior director of corporate communications for the United States Tennis Association, the national governing body for the sport, says it's led to new generations of enthusiasts who've come to love the sport through recent depictions in pop culture.
“It truly is spectacular,” he tells Yahoo Entertainment. “More people are playing tennis in this country. With more than 23.6 million people picking up a racquet and taking to the courts, tennis participation has increased by [32.5%] since 2019 in the U.S. That growth, and the number of people turning to tennis for the numerous health and wellness benefits, are only compounding the interest in the U.S. Open.”
That’s nothing new, adds Candy Lee, professor at the Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications, who says tennis legends like Billie Jean King, Maria Sharapova, Stefanos Tsitsipas and the Williams sisters have always been famous for their celebrity draw.
“We see the A-listers attend their games at ring side and run in the same crowds,” Lee tells Yahoo Entertainment, who says athletes naturally “occupy the same celebrity levels of movie stars,” given their fan base and “high pay scales.”
“Athletes are with that crowd and are part of the milieu,” she says. “We are very interested in them via media and celebrity outlets."
Mark Hyman, director of the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism, echoes those sentiments, telling Yahoo Entertainment that athletes have been part of pop culture since the dawn of media itself.
“The convergence of sports, culture, entertainment and celebrity has been a thing since the beginning of fandom,” he explains. “Sports figures really are no different than rock stars and movie stars in the minds of the public. I'd argue they never were.”
The U.S. Open is a mecca for fashion
A spokesperson for New York Magazine insists “there have been no changes to the magazine’s coverage focus due to the strikes,” telling Yahoo Entertainment that New York City media has traditionally “covered sports — including the U.S. Open” to high regard.
To that end, Picardi says it’s hard to ignore the role tennis has played in fashion trends, crediting much of that to Serena Williams.
“The U.S. Open [is] always an exciting opportunity, either for coverage or attendance. It heralds the end of summer and the beginning of fall in the most exciting way possible,” he says. “It's hard to imagine more energy around the Open than during the reign of Serena Williams, who diversified the crowd, stunned in custom Virgil Abloh-designed ensembles and inspired us to rally around a love of tennis — whether we could play or not.”
Looking ahead, Picardi expects wider interest in tennis as new generations of players become household names — and, like Naomi Osaka, use their platform to speak on issues that matter most.
“I wouldn't deny the stardom of tennis players and their perennial crossover appeal for mega-brands like Rolex, Omega, Lacoste, Nike and so forth,” he says. “I personally like to think of this as the continued legacy of Serena Williams and the male greats of the sport, including Andy Roddick."