Can a Health Startup Save Women’s Tennis?

Aron Solomon

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It was a very, very bad night in Tennis Paradise.

At the tournament simply known as Indian Wells, the grounds known as Tennis Paradise were abuzz with confusion and disappointment on Saturday as women’s tennis was in the spotlight for the wrong reasons.

Early in the evening, American Amanda Anisimova played an outstanding first set against 2021 U.S. Open finalist, the Canadian, Leylah Fernandez. While Anisimova seemed to have everything under control after her 6-2 first set win, she was visibly upset in her seat on every changeover, to the point where it was obvious that she was crying and trying to hold herself together.

After losing a very tight second set in a 7-6 tiebreaker to even the match, Anisimova told the chair umpire that she was feeling very sick and would retire from the match. While the umpire asked Anisimova to stay and talk to the tournament supervisor, as this was all very abrupt in her opinion and came without warning of illness or injury, Anisimova quickly left.

Around an hour later, former world number one, Naomi Osaka, was a mere three minutes into her match with the Russian, Veronika Kudermetova, when a voice emerged from the silent crowd, exclaiming “Naomi!!! You suck!

Visibly upset, Osaka sought to have the offending fan removed, then, at the next changeover, gently asked to address the crowd, a reasonable request that was denied by the chair umpire and tournament supervisor. While certainly an exceptional request, it has been granted far more than once in men’s sports. She did address the crowd after the match and shared why this was so hurtful, including visceral memories of something similar happening to the Williams sisters two decades ago in the same tournament. It would be over a decade until Serena or Venus returned to play Indian Wells.

In a sad irony, hours earlier, Osaka had given a press conference explaining her perspective that there are too many tournaments and that she wanted to play in as few as possible. After this weekend’s events, and in light of Osaka’s multiple extended breaks from tennis last year, who knows when she will again return to the court.

Yet Osaka’s situation is remarkably unique. She can pick and choose the tournaments she wants to play because she isn’t dependent upon prize money to survive, as 99% of the other players are in both the women’s and men’s game. Having earned over $50 million in corporate endorsements in 2021 on top of close to $40 million the year before, Naomi Osaka is the highest-paid female athlete in history, eclipsing even Serena Williams.

This all comes on the heels of the Women’s Tennis Association signing their largest sponsor in their 52-year history. While the numbers have yet to be made public, the WTA’s deal with Hologic is surely large enough to save women’s professional tennis, which always seems to be at or near the brink of either survival or necessitating an unequal merger with the ATP Tour, the governing body for men’s professional tennis. While some tournaments, such as Indian Wells, offer equal prize money for men and women, others, such as last month’s important tournament in Dubai, saw the women’s winner earn $104,180 while the men’s winner earned $523,740.

Distancing themselves from the ATP Tour needs to be a top priority for the WTA. The ATP Tour is buried under the crushing weight of their own internal scandals, ranging from failed on-court assault and domestic abuse investigations of one of their top players. Serena Williams commented on the allegations of on-court abuse of an official in men’s tennis, stating that had she done the same thing, she would be in jail.

Hologic, still thought of as a startup by many, is a medical technology (MedTech) company primarily focused on women’s health. Hologic, which sells medical devices for surgery, imaging, and diagnostics, began this year with a $20 billion market cap. It is also a company that very few people have anything negative to say about. Its core business is perfectly aligned with the business of women’s tennis; it is that rare sports corporate sponsorship that isn’t about spinning a narrative to fool people into believing that the fit between league and sponsor isn’t actually abysmal.

The WTA and Hologic have already announced plans to work together to improve the lives of WTA players, so a great place to start would be on emotional wellness. As Saturday in the California desert highlighted, WTA players, even the most accomplished ones, are under a sometimes overwhelming amount of stress. While in 2020 the WTA granted special ranking exemptions to allow points won by players to carry over longer than the usual 12 months they last, the rules are now back to normal. In practice, this means that most players are almost never home, instead living a week-by-week nomadic existence of global tournament play.

Naomi Osaka is right - the WTA season is far too long. It begins in January with an Australian swing that includes the first Grand Slam of the calendar year, and doesn’t end until the WTA Finals in November. Most of the very short off-season is spent by most players training for the season ahead. Contrast this with the National Football League, where the season runs from September until the beginning of February - early January if you fail to make the playoffs. The grind for WTA players, and their male counterparts on the ATP Tour, is intense. As we saw on Saturday night in Tennis Paradise, the game may be at a breaking point, not only for its biggest stars, but for the hundreds of lesser-ranked players who, as the Financial Times reported, struggle each year to simply break even on tour.

The WTA has already done a lot right in 2022. From taking a bold stance on China in response to safety concerns for one of their own, former Chinese number one player, Peng Shuai, to also ceasing operations in Russia in response to the invasion of Ukraine, the WTA is the rare sports governing body on the right side of history. Just their decision to leave China will cost the WTA $100 million. So whether the WTA is able to leverage their new relationship with Hologic to ensure that their players are as physically and emotionally healthy as they can possibly be remains to be seen, yet is the foundation upon which the future of women’s tennis will be built.

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Aron Solomon, JD, is the Chief Legal Analyst for Esquire Digital, who has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world.

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