Last March, on a Tuesday at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, 19-year-old Denis Shapovalov had just upset No. 10 seed Marin Cilic to reach the fourth round of the desert Masters tournament for the first time in his career.
A player’s team is typically long gone by the time the post-match interview begins on the court, but that afternoon Shapovalov’s entourage remained glued to the Stadium 3 sidelines. They knew what I knew as the court’s emcee: we were about to witness an artist at work.
Two days earlier, following his second-round win, I asked Shapovalov about videos he had been posting on social media, some of which featured his very own rap stylings. The fans went wild, thinking he might spit some bars on the spot.
Instead, we made a deal. He agreed to rap if he ended up notching another win on the same court. Too bad the odds were against us, given the number of matches left to be played.
When the schedule came out, we found that the odds stood no chance against the tennis (rap?) gods. Shapovalov and Cilic opened play on Stadium 3, where the Canadian not only notched the upset, but also delivered on his end of the post-match deal. I handed over the mic, and he introduced the world to ... Rapovalov.
I’m here in Cali with my fans getting hella lit,
Happy with the win today, now I got a flow to spit,
Loving the support, I leave it all on the court,
Fighting like the wolf, I’ll be back for more.
So take care and good night, know this the good life,
Hot tubs and court time, Thursday we back, a’ight!
Not exactly Drake, but pretty good for a tennis player, eh?
As Shapovalov wrapped up, the crowd, including his team, reacted like he had just won the tournament. And they were reminded that in the lonely, all-consuming world of pro tennis, diversifying one’s interests has its benefits
Shapovalov explained that writing and rapping provide a valuable release while on tour, and it’s something he wishes more people understood.
“I’m just doing it for me,” he told reporters in Miami soon after his Indian Wells performance went viral. “Maybe one day I will release a song, but for now it’s just something to do to get my mind off things. It’s just an outlet for me.”
Shapovalov is not alone in finding a creative distraction from the grind.
Hall of Famer Martina Hingis and former doubles No. 1 Bethanie Mattek-Sands are just a couple of players who have dabbled in clothing design. Two-time major doubles champion Vania King performed the national anthem at the 2009 US Open, and has even released a single online. Danielle Collins has her own jewelry line, while Andrea Petkovic is a published writer, hosts a podcast and recently tried her hand as an on-camera presenter.
Young stars Felix Auger-Aliassime and Ugo Humbert are the resident ATP pianists, and there are several players on tour who have written books, including Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi. Tommy Haas, Feliciano Lopez and Jeremy Chardy have become tournament directors, while Stefanos Tsitsipas exercises his artistic side as a YouTuber.
Tsitsipas’ father and coach, Apostolos, encourages his son’s creative interests, and it seems to be paying off. The 21-year-old Greek went from a promising talent to the No. 5 player in the world in 2019.
“For Stefanos, free time means [doing] something that helps [him] to be creative, helps [him] to be balanced. That’s what helps him,” the elder Tsitsipas told Sport 360.
Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe set a precedent for helping those less fortunate and pushing for change, all while competing at the game’s highest level. Today, countless players have dedicated themselves to charitable work via their own organizations. Sloane Stephens is one of those athletes, focusing on education, nutrition and fitness for underserved communities through her Sloane Stephens Foundation.
“It’s very easy to get caught up in our own lives, myself included,” says the 26-year-old, “so I think it’s really important to be involved in things that are bigger than myself.”
The internet and social media have also allowed players to build their own brands beyond hobbies and charity work, and many have cashed in. Endorsements are the cornerstone of their off-court earnings, but those interested in kickstarting a business concept can use their downtime and resources to execute it.
Jessica Pegula, who rose from outside the Top 100 to a career-high No. 55 in the world last season, launched her own skincare line, Ready 24, with the help of a local fashion and beauty company in her hometown of Buffalo, NY. The prep work provided a much-needed distraction as she rehabbed from hip surgery in 2017.
Though the 26-year-old admits it’s difficult to market the product with the demands of her current schedule, the benefits outweigh the challenges.
“It keeps me busy off the court, which I like because sometimes I get too caught up in every little aspect of my tennis,” Pegula says. “Sometimes I put too much pressure on myself, so it definitely helps to take my mind off things.”
Noah Rubin agrees. The American launched his Behind the Racquet series in 2019, providing a digital platform for players to openly share their challenges and triumphs. He notes that some fans think training consumes players’ every waking hour, when in fact they often have time on their hands.
For Rubin, developing the BTR brand has put those spare hours to good use.
“It’s almost my own form of therapy, which is really helpful,” the 24-year-old says. “It also encompasses a lot of my passions outside the tennis world and focuses them in one place.”
As a player’s ranking rises, so does available startup capital and the size of the support system. The biggest stars can engage in large outside pursuits— think Roger Federer’s Laver Cup, Rafael Nadal’s tennis academy, or Maria Sharapova’s Sugarpova candy line—with the guidance of a well-equipped team. Unlike their solo existence on the tennis court, most players are not managing their various off-court opportunities unassisted.
When it comes to side hustles, there are perhaps no more avid explorers of interests outside the lines than Venus and Serena Williams. Venus has earned multiple degrees, launched clothing and interior design companies and, in 2019, started her own YouTube channel. Serena sells her eponymous clothing line on the Home Shopping Network, has made several acting cameos and joined Venus as a part owner of the Miami Dolphins. She also operates her own venture capital firm—and that’s just the highlight reel.
While rewriting tennis history books, the sisters have simultaneously enjoyed the opportunities that come along with being two of the most recognizable athletes in the world. And thanks to social media, the public knows all about them: every photo shoot, appearance and promotion. That comes with its challenges, as any public figure can attest.
For Stephens, the same channels that promote her foundation are also home to images of her other extracurriculars, from vacation shots to sponsor ads. The feedback isn’t all positive.
“There are a ton of people out there who will [say] I’m not practicing enough, ‘stop taking selfies,’ or commenting on my weight,” says the 2017 US Open champion. “These people act like we’re robots and our entire life has to be tennis. You have your job, your family and your hobbies. Why can’t athletes have that? We’re people, too.”
In the year since Rubin launched BTR, he’s regularly encountered those who wonder if his off-court work impedes results on court.
“People think this must be taking away from my tennis,” Rubin says, “and I tell them, ‘Actually, it’s beneficial for my tennis.’”
Outside opinions on Shapovalov’s rap flowed like the verse itself long after he left the court last March, many from outside of tennis.
And while there is always the danger of distractions derailing a promising career, only those closest to an athlete know how many balls he or she can successfully juggle.
While they handle the details, let’s take Shapovalov’s advice and enjoy the rapping, videos, businesses and books that allow us to see different sides of the players we love.
Perhaps legendary broadcaster and former player Mary Carillo summed it up best: “Creative offcourt outlets are fine, even healthy much of the time.
“But rule number one in so many sports is this: Don’t drop the ball.”