Like most people my age in the U.K., I grew up fascinated by WAGs—the wives and girlfriends of footballers. They were practically a religion, a phenomenon similar to the early days of Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian—as in, women made famous by association.
And while other stars who had achieved fame tried to hide as much of their private lives from the camera as possible, this group, like Hilton and Kardashian, reveled in the exposure. They invited us to watch their wild parties and lavish holidays, using one hand to coyly cover their faces from flashes and the other to beckon the photographers closer.
We were there for the weddings and the affairs, all the way up to the recent “Wagatha Christie” court case pitting one prominent WAG (Coleen Rooney, wife of former Manchester United player Wayne Rooney) against another (Rebekah Vardy, wife of Leicester striker Jamie Vardy), which got so much interest it’s being turned into a documentary. We were there for it all, and it was amazing.
Tennis—the U.K.’s other favorite sport—never really had the same draw. The wives and girlfriends escaped the limelight, the biggest splash each year coming when Kate stopped by Wimbledon following yet another royal scandal.
Perhaps it’s because tennis is a single-player sport, so you don’t have the same gaggle of WAGs all sitting together. Or it might be due to the elegant aesthetic of Pimm’s Cups, strawberries-and-cream, and polite clapping in an otherwise silent stadium, compared with the riotous, beer-fueled chants of fans at a football game.
Whatever the reason, I can now safely say that it was our loss.
Novak Djokovic has arguably led the charge on putting the wives (and girlfriends) of tennis stars—WOTs, if you will—on the map, surprising given the 21-time Grand Slam champion’s much-publicized dedication to and focus on his sport (including practicing the splits and adhering to a strict gluten-free diet).
Yet, when the pandemic hit, Djokovic not only refused to be vaccinated, he released statements to the press about his views and even tried to skirt official rules in order to compete despite being unvaccinated. (Earlier this year, Djokovic was held in an Australian detention center for five days because he did not meet the country’s vaccination requirements.)
His wife, Jelena, has taken to cause of defending her husband the way Giuliani stands by anything to do with Trump.
Earlier this month, Jelena got into a very public spat with Racquet, going to bat for her husband after the tennis magazine tweeted, “Dunno why this guy keeps entering tournaments hoping they’ll change their rules for him.” (As of now, Djokovic will be unable to compete in the U.S. Open, which starts next week, since the U.S. requires non-citizens to be fully vaccinated.)
In 2020, during the worst days of the coronavirus, Jelena, who refers to herself as “the apprentice of Life” on her Web site and calls on readers to “dare you to be you,” shared a conspiracy video with her then-500,000 Instagram followers claiming that 5G was responsible for the coronavirus.
Jelena Djokovic isn’t the only WOT who caused pandemic drama. In January of last year, Australian player Bernard Tomić’s then girlfriend, the former Love Island star Vanessa Sierra, reportedly received hundreds of death threats after complaining about the mandatory isolation all tennis stars and their companions had to undergo before the Australian Open; specifically, not being able to get a professional hair wash. “This is the worst part of quarantine,” she said in a YouTube video. “I don’t wash my own hair. I’ve never washed my own hair. It’s just not something I do.”
The comment caused almost as much furor as when she joined the popular online pornography platform OnlyFans a year earlier. (OnlyFans aside, Sierra has racked up nearly as many followers as Jelena has on Instagram, mainly posting photos of … herself in barely-there bikinis.)
American player Taylor Fritz’s model girlfriend, Morgan Riddle, is perhaps the best-known WOT of the moment. Riddle is extremely social-media savvy, with her TikTok videos amassing more than 7.7 million likes, to the point that the New York Post will devote whole stories to subjects such as Riddle’s “green bikini with gold accents.”
Riddle is taking WOTdom to a new level, becoming a tennis influencer without having much to do with tennis at all. Her formula: including the sport in everything—it’s a sort of constant backdrop to her carefully manicured (and filtered, and Photoshopped) image—while focusing her content squarely on herself. At this point, Fritz is little more than arm candy, his tournaments serving as the perfect setting for Riddle to do her thing—and expand her followership further.
Last month, Riddle asked her followers to weigh in on what she should wear at Wimbledon—people love to feel like they’re part of stars’ lives. Her videos have titles like “get dressed with me for a tennis match” and “recreating princess diana outfit for wimbledon,” inviting interest from an audience that doesn’t necessarily know or like tennis. In one of her most successful posts, Riddle promised to re-invent the sport’s image. It started with: “I know tennis is relatively uncool and unknown in America, so here’s what you should know.”
The husbands (and boyfriends) of tennis stars are becoming a thing, too. Earlier this year, U.S. Open winner Sloane Stephens graced the pages of Vogue with stunning photos from her wedding to footballer Jozy Altidore, a newly christened HOT (husband of a tennis star). And Naomi Osaka’s rapper boyfriend, Cordae, whom she has been officially dating since 2019, is one half of “the most dynamic and outspoken young couple in culture right now,” according to GQ.
The most well-known HOT is Serena Williams’s husband, Alexis Ohanian. One can only hope that the Reddit co-founder will be seen cheering Serena on in the stands of the U.S. Open with their daughter, Alexis Olympia, for what could be Williams’s last game before she officially retires.
Like with soccer, and everything else, the world of WOTs and HOTs has its dark side.
In 2020, Olga Sharypova, German player Alex Zverev’s ex-girlfriend, accused him of domestic abuse that got so bad she attempted to take her own life by overdosing on insulin. Many were disappointed with the way the accusations were handled by the tennis community—the ATP tour has investigated and has yet to identify a course of action—and the former U.S. player Mary Carillo even chose not to commentate on the Laver Cup in protest. (Zverev, 25, has repeatedly and categorically denied ever abusing Sharypova.)
That same year, news broke that Zverev’s ex-girlfriend of less than a year, the model Brenda Patea, was expecting his child. Zverev told the press that he looked forward to working out a co-parenting situation. Patea, meanwhile, said she didn’t want Zverev to have anything to do with her baby. “‘Highlight of his life?’ ‘He is pleased?,’” Patea wrote in a social-media Q&A. “I hardly think so. Because we have no contact!”
And while Australian player Nick Kyrgios may be publicly discussing how soon he wants to marry his current girlfriend, 22-year-old Costeen Hatzi, behind the scenes he’s been desperately trying to delay his court date for assault charges brought by his ex-girlfriend Chiara Passari. (A magistrate recently rejected a request made by Kyrgios for a three-month adjournment.)
The wives and girlfriends of tennis stars are using their status and newfound attention to grow their social media, their blogs, their profiles. And while we may be mesmerized by these pretty people making tennis cool again, we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the ones struggling. If social media has taught us anything, it’s that things are never as they appear—even if Morgan Riddle’s latest picture-perfect TikTok suggests otherwise.
Flora Gill is a London-based writer