Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Rise of the Wimbledon WAG-fluencers

Must read

  • Alexander Zverev threw a barbed comment seemingly at Riddle after losing
  • Riddle, like Tommy Paul’s girlfriend Paige Lorenze, is part of a new wave of stars 
  • But behind-the-scenes content has the opportunity to draw fans to the sport

After missing out on a place in the Wimbledon quarter-finals having thrown away a two-set lead, popular wisdom would have Alexander Zverev leaving Centre Court as quickly as he possibly could. 

But under the roof on Monday evening, the tournament’s No 4 seed instead lingered at the net, intent on discussing something with his opponent, Taylor Fritz. Trapped by his rival’s racquet, Fritz appeared to listen with only passing interest before escaping to shake the chair umpire’s hand. 

Zverev was happy to explain in his post-match press conference

‘I think there’s some other people that maybe are in the box that are not maybe from the tennis world, that are not maybe from particularly watching every single match,’ the German said pointedly. ‘They were a bit over the top.’

It is not uncommon for outsiders to make it into the player box, particularly on the showcourt at a Grand Slam, where sponsors will expect to get their money’s worth watching their product sweat below them. Novak Djokovic welcomed Gareth Bale to his box on Monday evening, Ronnie O’Sullivan earlier in the fortnight. 

Morgan Riddle (right) appeared to attract Alexander Zverev’s post-match ire along with the wife of Taylor Fritz’s coach Michael Russell, Lilly (left)
The social media influencer has been dating Fritz for nearly four years and frequently travels with him
Riddle has been keen to take advantage of her unique perspective and life on the tennis tour
Riddle has been keen to take advantage of her unique perspective and life on the tennis tour

It seemed more likely that Zverev was referring to two women exuberantly celebrating Fritz’s comeback at the front of the box. One was Lilly Russell, the wife of the American star’s coach Michael, a frequent presence on tour. The other, the bright blonde beacon certainly no stranger to attracting the ire of the general public, his girlfriend, social media influencer Morgan Riddle. 

Since late 2022, Riddle has been sharing weekly vlogs covering her life on the tennis tour as a player’s girlfriend, a ‘role’ she first took up two years earlier, during the pandemic, after meeting Fritz on dating app Raya. Then, the gruelling travel that typifies the tennis tour existed in the abstract, amidst a global shutdown. As their relationship intensified and the world opened up again, Riddle began travelling with Fritz in earnest. 

The vlog had started after Riddle repeatedly went viral earlier that year sharing her experiences travelling with Fritz, her burgeoning fandom clamouring for the exotic locations, upscale Grand Slam experiences, and carefully chosen ‘match fits’ Riddle would sport courtside. Via her YouTube channel, Riddle can go into more detail on her rootless experience globetrotting alongside the world No 12 as well as making the most of visiting new countries – taking a cooking class in Rome, for example, or walking the empty streets of Hong Kong on Christmas morning. 

Riddle has since parlayed her unique position as a fashion-and-beauty influencer with an unmatched behind-the-scenes understanding of the life of a professional tennis player into closer roles with the tour. In SW19, Riddle is fronting their ‘Wimbledon Threads’ lifestyle social media video series, and she – as well as Tommy Paul’s girlfriend Paige Lorenze, whose YouTube channel follows similar themes – was used in an ambassadorial capacity at the US Open in 2023. 

Paige Lorenze (left) has seen her own brand as an influencer move into the tennis space since dating Tommy Paul
The US No 2 and the influencer met via Instagram nearly two years ago and Lorenze also follows the tour via her blog

While Riddle and Lorenze are not the only content creators dating male tennis players and crafting their social media brands accordingly, the pair have attracted the most heat. To their detractors, Riddle and Lorenze are the very worst of the WAG stereotype of old, keen to capitalise on their partner’s success and make sure that they retain the spotlight at all times. 

Social-media-hungry girlfriends – or ‘TWAGS’ if their other-halves compete in the ATP – have been accused of harming the sport, intent on taking the attention away from the competitors and directing it towards their shoes and bags. 

A dip into the comments section of either of the two women’s social media profiles finds a number of trolls keen to mock their knowledge of the sport or blame them for any drop in the form of either Paul or Fritz. ‘Not being part of the tennis world’ is likely one of the tamer insults that has been flung at Riddle over the past fortnight. 

Lorenze was publicly embroiled in controversy in the run-up to this fortnight’s tournament when she took part in Paul’s trophy celebration after winning on grass at Queen’s Club. The newly minted US No 1 invited Lorenze to join him for pictures, and the 26-year-old posed with her hand on his neck in what she thought was a loving gesture. 

Lorenze came under fire for appearing to ‘claw’ at her boyfriend’s neck after his win at Queen’s
Lorenze’s brand Dairy Boy has launched products in line with key dates in the tennis tour, such as this fortnight’s launch of the ‘Match Collection’ (pictured)
Riddle has become a non-athlete signing for sportswear and equipment brand Wilson
She also has her own role at Wimbledon, fronting their vox-pop behind-the-scenes series Wimbledon Threads

The internet thought differently, Lorenze pilloried for her apparent grasping posessiveness, her desperation to insert herself in Paul’s big moment – his first grass-court title – and her hopeless addiction to a camera flashbulb. 

‘Imagine if these two ever break up…’ one commentor wrote on social media site X. ‘Is he going to have ANY pictures of only himself with the trophy to look back on?’

What is indisputable is that both Riddle and Lorenze have made tennis an inextricable part of their brand. Fans will tune in for vlogs about days away from the hustle and bustle of the tour, but those are the episodes driving major traffic. Their collaborations, too, are tennis-themed, with Riddle releasing a bracelet with a racquet charm with New York brand Lottie NYC and partnering with Wilson as one of their only non-athlete ambassadors. 

Lorenze’s own brand Dairy Boy frequently launches products with a tennis bent, and during this year’s Wimbledon, dropped ‘The Tennis Collection’, featuring strawberry-emblazoned iPhone cases and tote bags. 

But whether this pivot to tennis content is anything worse than savvy cash-in on their current access remains to be seen. 

While Lorenze and Riddle have hoovered up the headlines for their seemingly endless documenting of their Wimbledon experience (recent vlog titles include ‘A Realistic Day at Wimbledon’, ‘Tennis Tour: Wimbledon, Chatting, Fittings, Meetings, BTS tour of the site!’ and ‘Wimbledon: A week in my life at a grand slam’), Fritz and Paul have been quietly getting on with their game, their appearances in the quarter-finals marking the first time two US men have made it to that stage at Wimbledon since Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras in 2001. 

Taylor Fritz enjoyed an impressive run in SW19 thus far, powering past Zverev in five sets
Tommy Paul reached the quarter-finals before being despatched by defending champion Carlos Alcaraz
Such is the interest in player relationships, even Jannik Sinner has became an object of fascination when he watches girlfriend Anna Kalinskaya from her player box

What Riddle and Lorenze’s popularity does suggest is a hunger for a behind-the-scenes look at the tour, despite the flop of Netflix’s much-hyped Break Point. Fans instead crave a more unvarnished look, with Fritz and Paul frequently wandering into shot, or Riddle rightly decrying scheduling difficulties, or how hard it is to travel as a player further down the rankings. 

Best at taking advantage of this interest is What The Vlog, a channel started by world No 12 Daria Kasatkina and her partner Natalia Zabiiako, a silver Olympic medal-winning figure skater. The vlog sees the pair in training sessions, player dining, and on and off court with a roving cast of characters from the WTA and ATP including Andrey Rublev, Aryna Sabalenka, Coco Gauff, and Mirra Andreeva. 

In-jokes are shared and on-court rivalries discussed and hashed out, with Kasatkina also making teasing references to swirling player gossip. After news breaks that Anna Kalinskaya and Jannik Sinner are an item, Kasatkina jokingly asks her blushing compatriot if she likes ‘carrot cake’ in an oblique reference to the world No 1’s rabid Carota Boy fanclub. 

What The Vlog’s appeal, Zabiiako belives, comes from a desire to see the human behind the athlete. 

Natalia Zabiiako (right) is the partner of Daria Kasatkina, and travels with her on the tour
The pair are the co-creators of What The Vlog, which provides a unique look at the rigours of the WTA
Zabiiako was courtside to celebrate Kasatkina’s grass court triumph at Eastbourne last month

‘(Through the vlog) people understand that athletes are the same humans, they have their own experiences, problems, joys, thoughts, victories and defeats,’ Zabiiako told Mail Sport. 

‘They see what an athlete has to go through to be who she is. We don’t try to embellish anything in our videos, to show how everything in tennis is cool, luxurious, no, we show everything as it is. 

‘We show both the joy of victories and the bitterness of defeats. I think people like it, they like the truth, the sincerity.’

Zabiiako, who films and edits all of the vlog’s episodes, which watch like mini-films and are often over an hour long, is motivated by looking to increase interest in the women’s game by allowing fans to empathise with their favourite players. 

And more and more, players are keen to take advantage of the unique player-led platform, Zabiiako adds. 

‘At first we didn’t communicate with the players, we just showed facilities, added some facts about the tournament and later started asking some questions to the players, and showed in addition to tennis, the city, its coffee shops,’ she elaborates. 

‘Now some players themselves are asking to be in the vlog – that’s really cool. I think the vlog helps to unite the players, and creates some kind of friendlier atmosphere. 

Kasatakina conducts informal interviews with players and friends, such as Mirra Andreeva
Casual run-ins with players from both tours – including Daniil Medvedev – are par for the course

‘But we never impose ourselves on a player. We see what mood she is in, whether she wants to talk or not. If she doesn’t mind, Dasha (Kasatkina) will happily talk and it’s always spontaneous, nothing planned, no scripts.’ 

Things are more open in the women’s dressing room, Zabiiako admits, the men ‘more closed’ and ofted ringed by protective entourages of agents, unwilling to give consent. For Kasatkina, it’s an opportunity to be creative off the court, a hobby and the chance to ‘look at tennis from a different perspective’.   

But Zabiiako and Kasatkina’s vlog is an outlier. A rise in TWAG-content shows how skewed the media landscape is in favour of influencers drawing new eyeballs to the sport rather than players themselves. 

Midway through the first week at the Championships, world No 82 Daria Saville shared a TikTok – alongside a petition to the WTA and ATP – which aimed to raise awareness to the archaic social media rules which forbid players from sharing filmed tournament content to their platforms.

‘I want justice for the tennis girlies,’ the Australian said in a now-deleted video over clips from a social media post of Lorenze’s. ‘Because of copyright rules we are not allowed to post any footage of us competing and yes I am salty because these girls are showing their highlight of the day which is fashion but us tennis girlies are left with nothing.’

Daria Saville has spoken out this fortnight about the impossibility of sharing match content due to copyright laws

With a healthy social media brand part-and-parcel with player success in 2024, it’s hard to square why one flourishing aspect of bringing more attention to tennis is being criticised, while an alternative is unable to be explored. 

While much of Lorenze and Riddle’s time in SW19 has existed largely apart from on-court action, one decision from the latter on Monday evening appeared to see Riddle wade into one of the thorniest issues on the tennis tour. 

Ahead of the match, Riddle posted a shot from her perch on Centre Court with the caption ‘cheer loud ladies’ before posting a video of her dancing with ‘when ur man wins 4 the girls (prayer hands emoji, nails emoji, heart emoji’ superimposed over the video. 

Tennis fans on social media immediately believed Riddle to be making an allusion to accusations of domestic violence against Zverev, levelled at him by two former partners. Of a 2020 accusation from the mother of his child, Brenda Patea, Zverev last month agreed a settlement of £184,148, ending an ongoing case. The player has denied all accusations.

For her part, Riddle deleted the posts on Monday evening, and on Tuesday, shared a statement stressing that there had been a ‘misunderstanding’ which had prompted her removal of the stories. 

Riddle offered an apology post as she stressed that her initial posts had been misunderstood

As such, there’s no suggestion Riddle intended to reference Zverev’s life away from the court, but she might have been in a unique position to offer commentary. Certainly, no members of either tour have discussed the allegations or their fallout in detail, save for Andy Murray’s lone questioning voice in 2021, and over three years on from the initial allegations, the ATP still does not yet have a policy for domestic abuse, something that the Professional Tennis Player’s Association have said that they would back if tabled. 

As long as Fritz remains in SW19, it seems inevitable that Riddle will make headlines – and even take the blame for his eventual exit. 

But TWAGS are nothing if not self-aware of their function as a lightning rod for negative opinions from those unwilling to understand their popularity watching on from the stands.

‘He’s getting clawed,’ Lorenze joked to Paul’s agent during a Zoom call filmed for her latest vlog as she put her hand around her neck. 

And when he suggests they sell the picture to TMZ, she added quickly: ‘Give me a cut’.

Latest article