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Sporting Gentlemen: Men's tennis from the age of honor to the cult of the superstar

Despite the significant changes that have taken place, men's tennis retains its core values of etiquette and gentlemanship.

By Lifestyle Editor

Photo: Stefanos Tsitsipas (credit: Adidas)


Tennis is a high-stakes game, played by prodigies identified early and coached by professionals in hopes of high rankings and endorsements. This commercial world is far removed from the origins of the sport. Before 1968—when Wimbledon invited professional players to compete for the first time—tennis was part of a sportsmanship tradition that emphasized character over money. It produced well-rounded gentlemen who expressed a code of honor, not commerce.

However, in the past decades, tennis has undergone a fascinating evolution from an age of honor to the era of the superstar. The shift in dynamics, values, and perceptions within the sport has shaped the identity of the sporting gentleman. In this exploration, we trace the key takeaways from the early days of tennis, characterized by honor and sportsmanship, to the contemporary era dominated by the cult of the superstar.

The Age of Honor

In the early 20th century, men's tennis was marked by a profound sense of honor and sportsmanship. Players like René Lacoste, Fred Perry, and Bill Tilden exemplified the ideals of fair play, respect, and integrity on and off the court. Matches were battles of skill and wit, often decided by the players' character as much as their strokes.

Sportsmanship and Integrity

Players of the age of honor were defined by their commitment to sportsmanship. The gentlemen on the court adhered to an unwritten code, acknowledging each other's achievements and conducting themselves with grace, regardless of victory or defeat. This era set the foundation for the ethos of respect that still lingers in the sport today.

Amateurism and the Love of the Game

In the age of honor, many tennis players were amateurs, driven by a genuine love for the sport rather than financial incentives. This love translated into a purer form of competition, where players engaged for the sheer joy of the game and the pursuit of excellence.

Photo: Roger Federer (credit: Australian Open)

The Rise of Professionalism

As the 20th century progressed, the allure of professionalism began to transform men's tennis. The transition from amateur to professional status shifted the landscape, challenging the traditional notions of sportsmanship and honor.

Commercialization and Global Appeal

With the advent of Open Era tennis in 1968, professionalism became the norm. The sport started to attract global attention, and players began to capitalize on their talents. The rise of commercial endorsements and sponsorships altered the dynamic, pushing tennis into the realm of entertainment and mass appeal.

The emergence of television and the internet further fueled the cult of the superstar. Players became household names, their personal lives and endorsements scrutinized by the media. Tennis evolved from a gentleman's sport to a global entertainment industry.

Intensity and Rivalries

The professional era ushered in an era of intense rivalries, with players like Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe defining an era of on-court battles. The competitive spirit, once tempered by sportsmanship, now took on a new dimension of ferocity. The line between rivalry and animosity became blurred, adding drama to the spectacle.

Photo: Kate Middleton presents Roger Federer with the runner-up trophy for the men's singles final at Wimbledon in July 2019. (credit: CLIVE BRUNSKILL/GETTY IMAGES)

The Cult of the Superstar

In recent decades, men's tennis has witnessed the emergence of global superstars, transcending the sport and becoming cultural icons. This era is marked by a shift from the traditional sporting gentleman to the larger-than-life superstar.

Global Icons and Celebrity Culture

Players like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic have become more than just athletes; they are global icons. The cult of the superstar extends beyond the tennis court, permeating popular culture. These athletes are not only celebrated for their tennis prowess but also for their style, charisma, and marketability.

Media Scrutiny and Pressure

The era of the superstar brings unprecedented media scrutiny and public attention. Players are not only judged by their on-court performance but also by their off-court personas. The pressure to maintain a certain image and live up to the expectations of a global fan base adds a layer of complexity to the lives of these athletes.

Photo: Ralph Lauren Wimbledon collection (credit: Ralph Lauren)

Key Takeaways for the Modern Sporting Gentleman

As men's tennis navigates the complexities of the superstar era, there are several key takeaways for the modern sporting gentleman.

Balancing Stardom and Sportsmanship

The modern gentleman in tennis faces the challenge of balancing the demands of superstardom with the values of sportsmanship. Navigating the media landscape while upholding the traditions of fair play requires a delicate equilibrium.

Legacy Beyond the Court

Superstars have the opportunity to leave a lasting legacy beyond their on-court achievements. Philanthropy, sportsmanship, and contributions to society become integral aspects of the modern gentleman's impact.

Embracing Diversity and Inclusivity

In an era marked by global fandom, the modern sporting gentleman must embrace diversity and inclusivity. Tennis has become a melting pot of cultures, and players can lead by example in promoting unity and understanding on and off the court.

Adaptability and Evolution

The evolution of men's tennis underscores the importance of adaptability. The modern gentleman must navigate the ever-changing landscape of the sport, embracing new technologies, fan expectations, and societal shifts.


From the age of honor to the cult of the superstar, men's tennis has undergone a remarkable transformation. The key takeaways for the modern sporting gentleman lie in finding a balance between tradition and innovation, sportsmanship and competitiveness, and global stardom and personal integrity. As tennis continues to captivate audiences worldwide, the essence of the sporting gentleman evolves, leaving an indelible mark on the sport's rich tapestry.perceptions of honor and chivalry.

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