Why Wimbledon is an iPhone launch, and Nadal is Samsung, and tennis is the smartphone business

Charles Arthur
Jul 2, 2018 · 5 min read

It’s Wimbledon time again! That time of year when people the world over remember that tennis professionals actually exist, having forgotten for the past 50 weeks. (If you want to interest kids, say they’re playing for a fortnight and hope they mishear it as Fortnite.)

So for the next two weeks, we’ll hear lots about Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Serena Williams, and the rest. I used to cover tennis; for years the pro circuit was my journalistic meat and drink. Now I cover technology. And just as the tennis circuit rises and falls, and just as tennis has risen and fallen in popularity and interest, so, it seems to me, with smartphones.

Tennis tends to intrude on the public consciousness only when the year’s big “Grand Slam” events — the Australian Open (January), French Open (May/June), Wimbledon (June/July), and the US Open (August/September) — briefly attract TV and press attention. Ask most people how many professional tennis players they can name, and it’ll probably be a few from that paragraph above.

Similarly, ask most people to name some makes of smartphone, and the answer will be either Apple or Samsung, especially in the US where they have about 80% of the entire installed base, according to ComScore. If you ask about other big companies, such as Huawei, ZTE, Oppo or Vivo, you’ll probably get a blank stare. It’s all Apple and Samsung, the Federer and Nadal of the smartphone world, locked in an eternal, unending battle, where first one and then the other is in the ascendant. One quarter the gigantic Samsung dominates the smartphone world; next, Apple is on top. (You can extend the metaphor and say the iPhone is Federer, elegant and efficient and barely changing, while Samsung is Nadal, using heft and aggression.) And both pairings have a fondness for court battles while also being friendly outside it: Federer and Nadal across a net fight hammer and tongs but are buddies outside the white lines; Apple is one of Samsung’s longest-standing and biggest customers, even while they’ve sued each other around the globe. (Can they really have called it quits? Judge Lucy Koh will be bereft.)

And in this metaphor, the tennis tournaments are the glitzy phone launches. You probably didn’t know that there are multiple professional tournaments every week of the year. But just as every week brings new smartphone models being breathlessly unveiled to marginally interested writers, so tennis carries on through the year, covered with varying enthusiasm by journalists.

What everyone wants is to be involved in the big events. In tennis, it’s those Grand Slam tournaments; in smartphones, it’s the big launches — Samsung’s Galaxy S series, which roll around in spring each year, and Apple’s iPhone launches, almost always in September. The iPhone launch is, without doubt, the Wimbledon of the smartphone world. Everyone’s there, or wants to be; it’s a social and dealmaking gathering run with a precision the military can only dream of (but which the All-England Club easily matches). The Galaxy S launches are the US Open: not quite as controlled, and prone to get a bit rowdy, but an essential part of the calendar.

And just as at those Grand Slam events, there’s machinery behind the process. They don’t just show off the phones; there are private briefings afterwards where journalists are given access to high-up executives, to be vouchsafed a few carefully coached words. Their railroad-tight focus mimics the frustrating experience of interviewing tennis pros, who are contractually obliged to do a “press conference” after every match, and become expert at parrying dull questions (and most of the questions really are dull, with zingers that tend towards “were you pleased with how you got momentum back in the fourth set?”)

The problem is that in both tennis and technology, very few journalists have any deep experience or empathy with the challenges their interlocutors face — the mental challenge of putting your livelihood on the line every day while moving from city to city; the complexity and risk inherent in designing and organising a supply chain for millions of devices which take at least two years to come to fruition, where an unpopular design could sink your company. For this reason, tennis press conferences seldom generate any interesting output, and it’s a surprise when they do. Ditto, of course, with the little private chats after product launches.

But just as tennis went through its explosion in popularity in the 1980s, when Borg and McEnroe and Connors and Becker and Navratilova and Evert could grab front pages, so smartphones have gone from front page to inside page to “do you think we need to cover this?” (One TV journalist I know says his network began asking this back in 2014.) The US Open’s viewing share has plummeted over the past 30 years, the French Open’s five lowest finals viewing figures have come in the past three years (six finals in all — three men’s, three women’s). Wimbledon has done rather better, having had a Briton in the final a couple of times, and being available on streaming services.

And similarly, smartphone sales have slowed down dramatically, from 70% sales growth in 2010 to nothing, nada, zippo in 2017. The thrill of the new isn’t there; people are hanging onto their phones for longer and longer, particularly in China, which is the world’s biggest market. Product launch? Blah. Apple has managed to keep the tension up from year to year — fingerprint unlock, portrait mode, face unlock — but it’s a tough audience out there.

Tennis’s advantage is that it’s a constant parade of giant-killers: someone’s always coming up seeking to dethrone the ruler, and will eventually succeed. (My current tip: Denis Shapovalov, whose lefty serve is a marvel. I don’t envy the commentators trying to say his name 400 times per match though.) The result might not be pretty — I covered the era of Agassi, Cash and McEnroe, and while their replacement by people like Jim Courier was inevitable, it was hardly thrilling. But wait long enough, and someone like Federer comes along. (Well, Federer does. There’s nobody like him.)

That hasn’t played out in smartphones. Though Huawei threatens from time to time to outsell Apple for a single quarter at least, that hasn’t yet happened — like a player all at sea on Wimbledon’s grass or the French Open clay, they can’t seem to make it happen in the countries where it would count — the top two remain dominant. Sure, we’ve seen Nokia and BlackBerry dethroned, though they’ve come out of enforced retirement — Nokia to the greater effect. And it would be foolish to suggest that the present order is what will remain. While Google would like you to believe its Pixel is a huge seller (as would the excitable coverage in many tech outlets), it’s a minnow in real terms; Samsung sells as many in a few days as Google does in three months. Samsung’s manufacturing advantage, and Apple’s huge installed base — approaching 900 million, according to Neil Cybart of Above Avalon — means that neither looks frail. Federer and Nadal on endless loop? If you ask some people, you could do a lot worse.

If you enjoyed this, you might like my daily list of links and brief commentary at The Overspill blog, also available as an email (signup and confirmation required — free, no ads) or by following @TheOverspill on Twitter. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter.

Charles Arthur

Written by

Tech journalist; was The Guardian's Technology editor 2005-14. Author of Cyber Wars (hacking) & Digital Wars (Apple v Google v Microsoft). Speaker, moderator.

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