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Auction Action: The Tennis Auction Serves Up Icons' Memorabilia

Auction Action: The Tennis Auction Serves Up Icons' Memorabilia
May 29, 2024
By 
Altan Insights
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Despite featuring many of the sporting world’s most beloved, global superstars over the past two decades, tennis memorabilia is often buried in the catalog of large, multi-sport auction events. This problem was quickly remedied in golf to great success by Golden Age and The Golf Auction, which have cultivated engaged audiences of golf memorabilia enthusiasts. The right lots find the right collectors, with focused storytelling parsing the idiosyncrasies and special characteristics of each item and moment. Now, Prestige Memorabilia’s Tennis Auction is seeking to do the same for the sport of tennis.

The emerging house held its first event in the fall of 2023, and in its second event at the start of 2024, made waves with the $118,206 sale of Rafael Nadal’s match-used racket from the 2007 French Open Final. This weekend, the 2024 Legends Auction closes, featuring a memorable assortment of tennis memorabilia from some of the sport’s most celebrated stars, both young and old. In partnership with The Tennis Auction, let's preview the action.

Roger Federer’s Legendary 2011 French Open Match Used Racket - Resolution Photomatch to Last Career French Open Final

Photo: The Tennis Auction

Throughout the 2000s, Roger Federer staked his claim on grass and hardcourts like no player had before. Between 2005 and 2014, Federer won a combined 12 Australian Open, US Open, and Wimbledon titles. That historic run included a stretch where Federer took home the championship across all three of those storied majors in both 2006 and 2007. 

Despite an illustrious career that positioned Federer at the top of the tennis world, the clay courts of the French Open remained his Achilles heel.  Between 2006-2008, Federer made the French Open final three straight times, falling to Rafael Nadal each time. In 2009, Nadal was upset in the fourth round and Federer took advantage to finally secure a French Open. One might think that this victory would spur Federer to the type of success in the French Open that he had found at the other three majors. 

It did not. As a matter of fact, Federer only appeared in one more French Open final after that 2009 victory. That final came in 2011, now well over a decade ago, which makes memorabilia from the days of Federer’s French Open success some of the most rare and valuable on the market today. 

In 2020, a racket used by Federer in that 2011 French Open final appeared at auction, and the perfect storm of rarity and tennis history combined to deliver a new tennis racket record…at least for a men’s player. In 2017, Bonhams sold the racket used by Billie Jean King in the “Battle of the Sexes” match for $125,000, but no racket used by a men’s tennis player had ever sold for more than $50,000. That changed when the hammer fell on the French Open Federer racket which closed for $55,350. 

Another racket from that final returned to auction two years later, this one with a photomatch letter (but no graphics) from Resolution, selling for $50,400. Now, we fast forward two years to this weekend to find out how the market has evolved with another racket from that final, this one accompanied by a photomatch letter and photomatch graphics from Resolution. Given the existence of two other rackets from the match, the heightened authenticity is of paramount importance.

Rafael Nadal’s 2019 French Open “What The” Match Worn Shoes - Tournament Champion

Photo: The Tennis Auction

For the better part of two decades, Rafael Nadal has been one of the most accomplished and popular athletes in Nike’s stable. With that kind of tenure, an athlete develops an impressive resume. One way Nike celebrates greatness - usually of a specific sneaker model - is with a “What The” colorway. “What The” sneakers typically mix bits and pieces from popular colorways of a model., creating a Frankenstein shoe of sorts that pays homage to predecessors.

For one of its favorite athletes, Nike created a special “What The Rafa" sneaker for Rafael Nadal, using the Nike Air Zoom Cage 3 Glove as the canvas. The shoes combined an element from the sneakers worn in each of Nadal’s 11 French Open titles to that point. The shoes dropped at retail in 2019 in highly limited quantities, quickly selling out. The retail price was $140, but in recent months, pairs have sold for more than $300 on StockX, with one pair even reaching $952.

Those pairs, though, lacked one essential ingredient: the clay stains from the grounds of Roland Garros. Offered this weekend is a match-worn pair of the “What The Rafas,” used by the Spanish maestro himself to slide his way through points in the 2019 French Open with precision and generational expertise. Nadal would ultimately win the tournament, earning his 12th title. The match-worn sneakers have provenance to Nadal’s foundation and a possible photomatch to his third round match with David Goffin. The “What The Rafas” matched to the fourth round and quarterfinal matches sold alongside a racket (unknown match, MEARS LOA) from the tournament for $79,200 in June of 2022. A photomatched pair of sneakers from the quarterfinal of a 2014 French Open Run, which also ended with a title, sold twice in 2023 for $13,200 and $15,240. The winning bidder this weekend will be hoping to bolster the case for this pair with a conclusive match, as the colorway is likely the most notable in Nadal’s career. 

Carlos Alcaraz's 2022 US Open Final Match Worn Wristband - 1st Grand Slam

Photo: The Tennis Auction

With the iconic era of Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal drawing to a close, tennis has been in search of its next wave of superstar talent. 

Enter Carlos Alcaraz. 

The 21-year-old star from Spain has already made the ascent from prodigy to champion, with a pair of majors secured in the trophy case. In 2022, Alcaraz defeated another rising star in Casper Ruud for the US Open title. The win not only earned Alcaraz his first Grand Slam and a claim as the youngest men’s US Open champion in more than 30 years, but also made him the youngest player to achieve an ATP #1 ranking. 

The historic US Open victory cemented Alcaraz’s position at the top of a sport undergoing significant transition. Between the 2004 and 2024 Australian Opens, 80 Grand Slam tournaments were played. Remarkably, in 65 of those events, or 82% of the time, the winner was either Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, or Rafael Nadal. The dominance displayed by these three legends will be nearly impossible to replicate over the next 20 years. However, the upcoming generation of talent now has a prime opportunity to shine as the legends of the 2000s and 2010s approach retirement.

With the potential catalyst of a historic career mixed with an already impressive array of victories, collectors and speculators alike are flocking into the Alcaraz memorabilia market. He has already become a fixture within the luxury sports industry, having penned partnerships with Louis Vuitton and Calvin Klein while wearing a Rolex during trophy presentations. There have been match-used Alcaraz rackets that are not photomatched which have sold for more than $10,000. Earlier this year, a signed tennis ball from the 2022 US Open with unconfirmed match-use sold for $1,524, exceeding its estimate by more than 50%. The most expensive item from the US Open tournament to sell at auction thus far were the sneakers worn by Alcaraz in the quarterfinals. The Nike Vapor Pros, signed and accompanied by a photomatch, sold for $15,120 in February 2023. 

Alcaraz has even reinvigorated a tennis card market that sat dormant throughout the 2010s. In 2022, NetPro announced a card licensing deal with Alcaraz after the company had taken a nearly 20-year hiatus. The cards sold out within days of their release with various additions selling for hundreds of dollars across secondary markets. 

If the career of Carlos Alcaraz remains on its current trajectory, one could hypothesize that valuations for apparel and equipment from the 2022 US Open will see ongoing appreciation. Featured in this tennis-centric auction is a Nike wristband worn by Alcaraz during that historic final. The cotton, white band features wear and prominently displays a black Nike swoosh. It’s paired with an LOA from Mears and is also backed by an image of the lucky fan who caught the wristband with Alcaraz visible in the background.

Rafael Nadal’s 2009 Davis Cup Finals Champion Shoes and Outfit (Resolution Photomatch)

Photo: The Tennis Auction

The United States hasn’t won a Davis Cup since 2007. Perhaps that’s why the global event is not as popular stateside in recent years as it is elsewhere. The year following that last U.S. triumph, Spain reclaimed the title, a feat which they would repeat in 2009 as well, that time in front of a home crowd in Barcelona. In 2009, Spain dismantled Croatia 5-0 in the final, thanks in part to a straight-set singles victory for Rafael Nadal against Tomas Berdych. 

In that match, Nadal wore a custom Nike ensemble in Spanish colors, including his Courtballistec 1.3 sneakers, which were photomatched to the occasion by Resolution. Along with those sneakers, his Nike polo shirt and wristbands are set for auction this weekend. While the Davis Cup has been around since 1900, the auction block hasn’t seen a heavy volume of match-worn material. The results for lesser material are indicative of the appetite for relics of international competition relating to global icons.

For instance, a match-issued Roger Federer Switzerland polo sold for $2,820 last year. That style was worn for the 2012 Olympics and 2014 Davis Cup, a silver medal and champion performance respectively. A Nadal warm-up jacket, backpack, and signed wristbands from the 2011 Davis Cup sold for $2,760 in 2022. But these aren’t items worn during competitive play, much less a finals match.

It’s difficult to draw parallels between memorabilia from this event, which is more unique, and memorabilia from individual tournament efforts. Still, photomatched sneakers from even lesser individual events frequently find mid-four-figure territory, with more momentous occasions pushing into five figures as highlighted above.

Novak Djokovic's 2024 Indian Wells Match Worn Signed Shoes (Photo of Djokovic Signing) - Nardi Match

Photo: The Tennis Auction

Novak Djokovic has been so dominant for so long that sometimes his losses are more notable than his wins. No loss was more jaw-dropping in the tennis world than a Round of 32 loss to Luca Nardi at Indian Wells this year. Though it might be surprising - even at this advanced age - Djokovic is human, not an unshakeable tennis robot.

From that shock loss came these Djokovic match-worn and signed sneakers, with Djokovic photographed executing his signature. Relative to those of his chief rivals, the market for Djokovic-worn memorabilia is underdeveloped. Key rackets that have surfaced at auction have achieved similar heights in results, but results for match-worn sneakers and apparel are quite limited. We’ve identified just one other auction sale of a pair of Djokovic-worn sneakers: a pair of signed Adidas sneakers from 2015 Wimbledon sold earlier this year for $11,590 after 20 bids. The sneakers were authenticated by MEARS for use but not related with any particular match. The result was perhaps an indication of hopes it was final-used against Federer but potentially also recognition of limited chances to buy Djokovic material. 

In case a reminder was necessary: Djokovic stands two ahead of Nadal on the all-time Slam leaderboard, a gap more likely to expand than contract in the coming years. 

Pete Sampras' Match Used Signed Wilson Pro Staff Racket

Photo: The Tennis Auction

Before there was Fed, The Joker, or Rafa, there was “Pistol Pete”. 

When Pete Sampras retired in 2002, he did so on a high note, defeating rival and fellow American Andre Agassi in the US Open Championship to claim his 14th major. That illustrious career placed Sampras at the top, besting Roy Emerson’s 12 majors which had stood as the record for nearly three decades. 

For the modern tennis fan who has been privileged with the age of Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal, it’s easy to overlook 14 majors when it now takes 20 to break into the top three. For a true fan who can appreciate success in relevance to its era, Pete Sampras epitomized a golden age in American tennis, one that the country has been trying to recapture over the last 20 years. Unlike many pros today whose game can often be defined by one or two characteristics, Sampras played with an all-around skill set, consistently pulling from a unique bag of tricks that made him a headache to play and a joy to watch. The powerful and aggressive style of play Sampras displayed throughout the early 1990s would give way in the 2000s to a game that emphasized sophistication and precision. While Sampras found success across all four majors, winning all at least twice with the exception of the French Open, it was the grass at Wimbledon where he truly dominated. Between 1993-2000, Sampras won seven Wimbledon titles in eight years. That historic run included a stretch between 1997-2000 that saw him secure a 31-match win streak at the storied event. 

Wilson Pro Staff rackets were the tool-of-choice for Sampras, who made various adjustments to his swing throughout his career but remained loyal to the brand for nearly 20 years. Even before the tennis racket market had matured in both values and volumes to where it stands today, rackets used by Pete Sampras were selling for thousands of dollars. 

In 2013, a Sampras racket dated to the late 1990s sold for $7,680 and stands as his most expensive equipment ever sold at auction. Less than one year later, a signed racket used by Sampras in a 2012 match sold for $5,294. The racket showcased by The Tennis Auction is accompanied by a letter from Jeff Schwartz, Sampras’ agent, with a note that emphasizes the limited supply. In the letter, Jeff writes “Not many people have Pete’s racquet as he only goes thru about 12-15 per year.” Sampras was known for using the same racket throughout the entirety of a match and even playing with a single racket across multiple tournaments. In today’s game, where players carry up to 10 rackets and some stars are known for using many of them throughout the course of a single match, the limited supply of strings used by Sampras could prove advantageous as the sport continues to become more mainstream within the collectibles market.

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