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No, professional tennis players aren’t nepo babies
They seem to be everywhere these days, but don’t look for them on the tours.
Published Feb 03, 2023
HIGHLIGHTS: Stefanos Tsitsipas, subject of the Times article in question, falls to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open final
The world is suddenly awash with “nepo babies.”
The term, coined by a young Canadian named Meriem Derradji last year and popularized by New York magazine, began as an amusingly rude way to target an age-old phenomenon: the entertainment industry’s penchant for keeping stardom in the family. But it can apply equally to any field with a low bar for entry—politics, media, business—and a high rate of nepotism. Donald Trump, Andrew Cuomo, Elon Musk, Maggie Haberman, James Dolan: There seems to be a nepo baby at the heart of half of this country’s current controversies.
The phrase may not have a long shelf life; look for it to top the lists of “words we never want to hear again” at the end of 2023. Until then, though, it’s easier than saying someone was “born on third base.” Which brings me to my reason for writing this column: Can we tar professional athletes, and in particular professional tennis players, with the nepo brush, too?
The New York Times thinks so. Last week, under the headline, “In Tennis, the ‘Nepo Babies’ are Everywhere,” the paper made the case that the sport is in the midst of a golden age of family favoritism. Stefanos Tsitsipas, Ben Shelton, Sebastian Korda, Casper Ruud, Brandon Holt and Elizabeth Mandlik were cited as examples of young pros with at least one former pro parent.
These players, according to the Times, “grow up with myriad advantages that span nature and nurture,” including athletic genes, formative-year training, financial resources, advance knowledge of the game’s pitfalls and “connections to a network of coaches and leaders of the sport.” There’s also, as Mary Carillo says, “the child’s instinct to try to please their parents by emulating them.”
It’s true that there are numerous ex-pro progenies on tour today, especially on the men’s side. And it’s true that they have had leg or two up on their competitors from day one. Their parents had a chance to teach them professional-level technique and tactics, and show them the mindset needed to make it to the top. They were guaranteed a second look from top coaches and sponsors, and maybe a wild card or two from tournament directors.
Still, there’s one thing no parent can do: Win a match for their kid.
This is why pro tennis players, whatever their last names may be, aren’t nepo babies. It’s what separates them from the offspring of famous actors, politicians, reporters and businessmen. None of those kids, in order to have a career, are required to pass an objective, near-daily, win-or-go-home test of their skills, the way tennis players are every time they play a match. Once a tournament begins, family names mean nothing, and even the best coaching in the world can’t guarantee you a victory. If you win enough matches to stay on the pro tour, you earned that success yourself.
This isn’t to say that tennis is a pure meritocracy, or that the global playing field is entirely level. Players from bigger, richer countries get more support from their tennis federations, more opportunities for sponsorship deals, and wild cards into more home-soil events. But those advantages are based mainly on nationality, rather than family history. Even then, they can only take a player so far. As we know, the richest tennis nation, the U.S., has plenty of Top 100 players these days, but hasn’t had a men’s Grand Slam singles champion in two decades.
Ruud and Tsitsipas are in the Top 5; Shelton and Korda are on the rise; Holt and Mandlik have made bigger strides than many thought they could. All had parents who were pros. But that’s not the case with the vast majority of the Top 100 on either tour. At its highest reaches, tennis is still as meritocratic as any other sport, if not more so. The dominant team in the NBA over the past decade, the Golden State Warriors, is led by Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, each of whom is the son of an NBA player. (This doesn’t make the Splash Brothers nepo babies, of course; they make all their three-pointers themselves.) In tennis’ Open Era, no Grand Slam singles champion has had a child who matched that feat. Korda has the best chance of being the first.
Tennis’ relative imperviousness to nepotism is part of its appeal. Whatever outer advantages a player may have, success still comes from what’s inside. You can have the most athletic genes, the most expensive coaching, the most impeccable technique, the most famous role models, even the most ferocious determination. But there’s still something unquantifiable and unique about every champion. Success comes from you alone.