Photo: SCP Auctions
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Ruth demanded the headlines, and Kobe commanded the pre-event buzz, but Novak Djokovic served up the pleasant surprise of the weekend in the auction world.
Much like Djokovic himself steadily amassing Slams while his more beloved counterparts enjoyed the spotlight, his racquet from the 2016 French Open Final steadily accumulated bids at SCP Auctions despite a lack of attention in the build-up. With 23 bids, the racquet sold for $107,482, becoming just the second individual racquet to reach six-figure territory this year and the third ever. The "individual racquet" qualifier is important, but even when we expand our scope to include racquets sold in multiples or alongside worn outfits, the ceiling for tennis memorabilia doesn't open like the roof at Arthur Ashe.
Roger Federer demonstrated the broad appetite for tennis memorabilia in July 2021 when he collaborated with Christie's on an auction benefitting his foundation. Items assembled from his career, including those dating to several major triumphs, delivered eight six-figure GBP results and a total sales tally of £3.4 million. Results for top lots trounced estimates like Federer dismantling a first-round opponent in his prime. Provenance directly from the legend inspired active bidding in a prosperous moment for the sports collectibles market, though the events came before the veritable uptick in game-used prices and interest.
The top two results in that event were outfit and racquet ensembles from the 2007 Wimbledon Final and the 2009 French Open. Each ensemble sold for £187,500, or about $258k at the time. Absent the match-worn outfit, it's hard to say whether either racquet would have ascended into six-figure territory despite the gravity of the associated occasions. Not far behind, though, was a lot of three racquets used in the fourth round, quarter-final, and final of Wimbledon in 2019. That lot sold for £162,500.
These are assets from the crowning achievements of one of history's most globally beloved athletes, straight from his own collection. While the numbers were strong at the time, relative to almost any other sport now, they look like John Isner's career earnings in comparison to Federer's. No disrespect to Big John or his massive serve, but his admittedly very handsome $23 million in on court earnings doesn't stack up. Perhaps Federer's auction events came a year too early, or perhaps tennis doesn't move the collecting needle.
But what about Federer's chief counterpart?
Rafael Nadal's racquet from the 2022 Australian Open Final sold earlier this year at Sotheby's for $139,700 against an estimate of $200,000 - $300,000. That victory moved him into first place in the all-time major rankings, and the racquet was photomatched by Resolution to 12 matches including the final. While the result did break new ground for individual racquets, it fell short of the levels that you or I (or Sotheby's, for that matter) might expect for a key piece of a beloved icon's history.
And then there's Djokovic: the awkward but more prolific third wheel to Federer and Nadal's global admiration. The $107,482 bidding this weekend pursued the very racquet Djokovic used as he captured the Career Grand Slam at Roland Garros in 2016. After reveling in victory over Andy Murray, he used the racquet to draw a heart in the clay then launched it into the crowd. An American woman made the lucky grab, documented via photo, and consigned the item to SCP seven years later. The provenance is solid, and it was supported by photomatches from Resolution and Sports Investors, with additional matches to the semifinal.
One challenge in tennis memorabilia, specifically in racquets: players cycle through them quickly. In any given match, they might use several, just as NBA players wear multiple jerseys and sneakers each game. So match-use is great, but it might not correspond to that memorable shot that defines a victory. This Djokovic racquet, though, did exactly that. And yet, the tool used to seal a key achievement for the most accomplished male tennis player of all time barely inched into six-figure territory...and even that was more pleasant surprise than unfortunate shortcoming.
The most decorated female tennis player of all time hasn't yet had an opportunity to test the market in these new conditions more hospitable to match-used items. In 2019, the racquet Serena Williams used in the 2018 US Open Final against Naomi Osaka sold for $20,400 at Goldin. That racquet was perhaps memorable for the wrong reasons: Serena smashed it during an emotional argument with the chair umpire en route to what would ultimately be an Osaka victory. But in a sea of racquets, a smashed one is very memorable. It was photomatched by Resolution, but the damage spoke for itself. At the time, $20k was a highly notable result. My, how times have changed.
Across major global sports, game-used records sit atop seven-figure thrones, even eight in Jordan's case. But tennis languishes at a quarter-million, with key, well-authenticated items not yet elevating the ceiling. Is the sport (and its globally beloved icons) a rare undervalued pocket of the market, or does tennis fail to capture collecting desires as the stars' shared successes erode the stature of each individual?
We suspect higher prices will one day greet the assorted GOATs, but recent results don't herald that day's imminent arrival. In the meantime, Carlos Alcaraz needs only 23 more majors to pass Novak and advance the tennis memorabilia landscape forever.
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