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Kelly: Who’ll care about tennis once its senior stars are gone?

On Sunday, Angelique Kerber became the first world No. 1 to lose in the opening round of the French Open in the modern era.

The match was a 6-2, 6-2 surrender against journeywoman Ekaterina Makarova. It took Kerber 82 minutes to negotiate the terms.

"Well, that's unbelievable," Makarova said afterward.

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I'm sure it feels that way to organizers.

This year's tournament is a day old and this already feels like the least-watchable Grand Slam in years. Tennis has had a star problem for a while, but it is being embarrassingly highlighted in Paris right now.

There are currently perhaps six players in the world whom one might reasonably call draws – the big-four men (Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray) and the big-two women (Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova). In a sport that has historically been a ruthless winnower of competitors in their 30s, the average age of that group is 32.

There are a few charismatic hopefuls looking for a peek-in – a Nick Kyrgios here, a Garbine Muguruza there – but for the most part, the next level in tennis is populated by an arid landscape of tediously interchangeable human widgets. It doesn't help that many of them look as if they were genetically engineered from the same DNA sample.

Kerber is a prime example. The German has been the world's top-ranked women's player off-and-on for the past nine months. She's won two majors in the past year or so. I still doubt there's anyone outside her close circle who could pick Kerber out of a lineup at Starbucks.

She has been consistently front-and-centre in the world's most glamorous individual sport and has somehow managed to remain anonymous.

It's a remarkable feat. Kerber ought to take up a sideline in espionage.

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The same can be said of the likes of Simona Halep, Karolina Pliskova, Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev and – god love him – Milos Raonic.

All of them are top-10 players and none of them has made any real impression outside the sport's cognoscenti. They are as forgettable as clerks.

Each May, as tennis really gets going again, the casual viewer is forced into a televised version of Memory. You may know the name, but have forgotten the face. Or vice versa. Is that Grigor Dimitrov or Thiem? It's hard to tell the difference. They both look bored.

By the time the U.S. Open rolls around, you've got all your blandly attractive central and Eastern Europeans sorted. But then you forget it all in the off-season and have to start again the next year.

Roger Federer you remember. His image has been burned onto the wider consciousness for nearly 15 years. Ditto Williams. They are stars, and this is about more than their prodigious professional output. They have that indefinable thing that elevates a talented athlete into a cultural touchstone – bright, quippy, alive in some way that tennis's next generation is not.

Federer isn't in Paris. He's old, has had a winning start to the season and was never great (at least not Federer-great) on clay, so he's taking a pass this year.

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Williams is pregnant. She's out of the loop until the start of next season at the least.

Djokovic has been diminished for months, and has now entered the tennis tailspin of hiring and firing coaches (as if one or another former pro sitting up in the family box punching his fist is the key to winning). Murray is trundling through his own performance trough.

Sharapova is the most curious case. She was denied a wild-card entry into the French Open because, in the heroic words of French federation president Bernard Giudicelli, "There can be a wild-card return from injuries. There cannot be a wild-card return from doping."

This is some real La Marseillaise-style populism, putting the égalité back in French tennis.

It would make more sense if wild cards had not been used since time immemorial to sneak in undeserving players whose only qualification is that they are hometown favourites or box-office lures. Of the 44 wild cards given out at Roland Garros this year, 40 went to French citizens. I'm sure that's all purely meritocratic.

I'm also not clear on what point there is to the sport's overarching bureaucracy imposing a specific PED suspension if rogue bureaucrats are going to extend it out willy-nilly based on how they feel about the crime. You've either done your time and have returned to good graces, or you haven't.

I'm sure most people are fine with the latter, but it ought first be codified in some way (i.e. no wild cards for X months upon return). Otherwise, it's just punitive grandstanding.

Accepting or rejecting one polarizing Russian is an exceedingly arguable point, but what is clear is that the French Open could have badly used some of her magnetism. Without Sharapova and Williams, the women's draw is a muddle of semi-recognizable understudies. Someone will win. I'm not sure many will care.

The only juice in the men's end of things is seeing whether Rafael Nadal, the most geriatric 30-year-old alive, can extend his mini-renaissance. If the universally admired Spaniard wins in Paris, everyone will be happy. But the happier they all are, the more the sport's executive branch should worry.

As enjoyable as it has been watching tennis's seniors set do well recently, it's a reminder of how little will be left after they've gone. By rights, most of these people should be halfway out the door by now. Occasionally, even they seem surprised they're still competing, never mind winning.

There have been warnings about this problem forever, but it seems particularly acute when so many of the elite are either missing or underperforming at one time. This is what tennis might look like in two or three years – an endless swath of decent players no one feels much connection to.

That investment can be built up, but that's not how sport is designed to operate. One star is meant to give way to another before his/her time is up. The assembly line isn't meant to stop, even for short periods.

As such, all tennis can do right now is hope 40 is the new 30. Because while every athlete is replaceable, few have ever seemed so indispensable as Federer, Williams, Sharapova and Nadal do right now.

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