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Sept. 15, 2021 — Is the world of tennis having a major problem?

Over the weekend, Emma Radacanu won the women’s singles title of the U.S. Open tennis tournament.

As one of the four majors on the women’s tennis calendar, the requirement for Radacanu to get to the final, much less win it, is to get through a bracket of 127 other competitors. Radacanu, moreover, had to go through one of 16 eight-player qualifiers in order to get into the bracket.

Radacanu, over the course of the last three weeks of tennis, has been nothing short of unbeatable. She won every match in qualifying and in the main draw in straight sets, besting many of the best players in the world.

And yet, she was the 160th-ranked player on the WTA Tour coming into this month.

The professional tennis tours, the ATP for the men and the WTA for the women, are a year-long multinational carnival of sport, visiting every continent with prize money over $300 million for both tours.

At the same time, however, the sponsors of these players, from shoe manufacturers to jewelers to energy drink purveyors, are in for several million dollars of their own, even before a ball gets struck.

It is a sport swimming in money. And as such, it is seen as a “country club” sport which throws up an enormous economic barrier up against average kids looking to take up the sport. And there was no better example of overcoming these barriers than the Williams sisters.

Venus and Serena Williams come from the public tennis courts of Compton, Calif. Their first-ballot Hall-of-Fame careers are close to the end, but their example of having to be twice as better as their competitors is still being played out to this day on USTA junior courts, satellite events, and college rosters as players are angling to try to make it into Grand Slam-level events some day.

Radacanu’s ascension is reminiscent of Boris Becker, who was an unseeded and unknown teenager in 1985 when he won the Wimbledon men’s singles title, the first of six Grand Slam events he would eventually win.

Now, tennis should be a meritocracy. Every match, there is one winner and one loser. Brackets are navigated every week on tour.

But the question is, what are the tennis tours doing to help identify good talent rather than build concentric circles of exclusivity? Are the economic barriers inherent in the game keeping the next Radacanu or the next Becker or the next Williams away from the sport?

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