When the French Open Grand Slam at Roland Garros takes over the tennis world for the next two weeks (May 22 - June 5), it will be without some of the game's biggest names — Roger Federer and Caroline Wozniacki out due to health, Maria Sharapova due to her drug-related suspension — but it will have the biggest draw in the sport: Serena Williams.
At 34, Williams is still atop her game at a time when many other athletes are transitioning to their post-playing days. Last year she won three Grand Slam events — the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon; and reached the finals of the U.S. Open (losing to Roberta Vinci).
She earned $11.6 million in prize money and $13 million from endorsements (second in endorsements among all women athletes to Maria Sharapova's $23 million). She was named Sports Illustrated's Sportsperson of The Year and AP's Female Athlete of the Year.
Williams is in Paris seeking her career 22nd singles Grand Slam title, which would tie her with Steffi Graf and put her just two behind all-time leader Margaret Court.
She also is there with her roster of marketing partners, including Nike, Gatorade, Wilson, Mission AthleteCare (where is also is an investor) and OPI. She has investments in her own companies and star status off the court, as evidenced by her appearance in Beyoncé's recently released "Lemonade" video.
French Open official marketing partners will also seek ways to embrace her presence, including lead partner BNP Paribas, Emirates, IBM, FedEx, Lacoste, Longines, Perrier, Peugeot, Adidas and MasterCard.
Tennis Channel is supporting its 10th year of French Open coverage with its biggest cross-marketing platform at the event, including TV, print, Internet, social media and presence on in-store networks at such destinations as McDonald's, Sam's Club and Best Buy; and on networks in a dozen airports nationwide.
In advance of this, Tennis Channel aired all 21 of Williams' previous Grand Slam singles wins, beginning with her 1999 U.S. Open victory over Martina Hingis.
"We did the 21 Grand Slam programming and every time one was on, it doubled our ratings from last year," said Robyn Miller, SVP-marketing for Tennis Channel. "She is so popular and such a draw for us. More than 90% of her matches have aired on Tennis Channel. Whenever she is on, it's great for us and great for our viewers."
Tennis Channel, based in Santa Monica, Calif., was acquired earlier this year by the Sinclair Broadcast Group. Sinclair then signed an agreement with the French Tennis Federation to extend their rights for the French Open to cover the full pay-TV run of the tournament, filling in areas previously occupied by ESPN, which did not renew its deal after the 2015 tournament.
Tennis Channel said its live coverage of match play would increase by some 50 hours, to almost 110, with approximately 80% of all live, televised French Open competition exclusive to the network.
NBC retains the other 20%, with coverage also on NBC Sports Network.
For as much of the time as possible, Serena will remain the center of attention.
"She is such an inspiration. She is so revered," said Miller. "When she wins her 22nd Grand Slam, we will be popping Champagne, whether it's at the French Open, Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. It would even be more exciting if she could repeat what she did last year, winning three Grand Slams to tie Court."
Like other tennis players on the circuit, Williams' is looking at a busy summer. After the French Open, she is scheduled to play at Wimbledon (June 27 - July 10), in the Summer Olympics (Aug. 5 - Aug. 21) and then the U.S. Open (Aug. 29 - Sept. 11).
"It's like there's four majors in the next four months, counting the Olympics, and it's such an intense summer," said Chrissie Evert, Hall of Fame tennis player, who won 18 Grand Slam singles titles — including seven French Opens — during her career. "It's not going to be easy . . . (for Serena), it's so much about motivation and so much about fitness for her, those two things."
Williams shared her motivation during a pre-French Open media conference.
"Four titles and three finals (in one year) is not bad for everyone else, but I'm not everyone else," Williams said. "I want to win more than most people — ever."