Heading into the 2018 Australian Open, the women’s draw had its question marks. Seven-time Australian Open champion Serena Williams remained sidelined due to recently giving birth to her daughter, Alexis. With the living legend out of the tournament, major names like Maria Sharapova, Venus Williams, Caroline Wozniacki, and No.1 ranked Simona Halep all became strong favourites to take the first Grand Slam of the year.
A majority of the aforementioned tennis giants still stand in Melbourne after the first weekend. However, the No.5 seed Williams lost to the unseeded 20-year-old Swiss player Belinda Bencic, 6-3 7-5.
This is the fourth time in Williams’ career that she was knocked out of the Australian Open in the first round. After losing the final of the tournament to her sister last year, this upset certainly comes more as a surprise than something tennis fans may have expected. However, it is important to note that this is the third time in the last five years that Williams was knocked out of the tournament in the first round.
The significance of Williams’ loss extends beyond the tournament itself. Of course, the women’s draw still has some of the biggest names in the sport. However, many question whether the loss of the sisters will make this tournament less appealing than it usually is.
A different script
In addition to its decline in appeal, the Open may see a decline in exposure from more general fans of tennis. The Williams sisters name alone is enough to make the general fan flip on the television and watch them play. Serena and Venus are the names that the common fan associates with women’s tennis. While Wozniacki and Sharapova certainly have their value, they simply aren’t the players that have a direct correlation when one thinks of women’s tennis.
The decline in exposure on television has many effects. The primary being that sponsors of both the players and the tournament does not receive the same amount of attention that they expected to prior to the tournament.
Kia Motors, one of the primary sponsors of the Australian Open is in its final year of what was a five-year extension with the tournament that was signed back in 2013. The deal between Kia and the Open was reportedly worth up to £36,243,500. This was one of the highest sponsorship deals ever for a Grand Slam.
It will be interesting to see if Kia will again extend its sponsorship with the open after this year. The Williams sisters are physical proof that tournament receives more viewership when they are playing, as the final between the two in 2017 resulted in a 17 percent viewership increase from the 2016 women’s final (Serena Williams vs. Angelique Kerber).
While both sisters continue to age like a fine wine, the two tennis legends will have to retire eventually. When this day comes, the entire field of women’s tennis will drastically change from not only a competitive standpoint but also financially. We can only hope that this won’t be for some time, but the 2018 Australian Open may serve as an insight into women’s tennis in the future.
Written by: Jake Meister