For those who champion gender-parity in sports, the professional tennis world is controversial, at best. In recent years, tennis has made significant strides towards equality: since 2007, men and women earn the same prize money; both sexes get similar media attention in Grand Slam tournaments; and, with endorsement deals making seven of the nine women featured on Forbes’ list of top-earning female athletes tennis players, both men and women are able to become household names. The actual tennis games, however, differ greatly.
The depth of talent amassed currently on the men’s side of the game is, uncontestably, the best ever. Although some would criticize the all-mens Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tour as “top-heavy,” with either Djokovic, Nadal and Federer claiming the number one spot and winning all but three Grand Slams since 2004, such consistency across contests has garnered a massive fan-base for the sport. Moreover, within this formidable group, there is a great variety in play.
Jonathan Jacobs, a thirteen-year tennis coach at Bayview Country Club in Thornhill, Ontario, points to these striking differences between the three top men of Tennis. He argues, “Novak Djokovic is the best mover on the court,” while Rafael Nadal’s thumping athleticism makes him “the best defensive-offensive tennis player, ever.” Lastly, Roger Federer, with his balletic classicism, embodies “the graceful serve and volleyer.” Whether or not Andy Murray, who is currently ranked number four, can use his scrappy, stubborn, and sometimes junkball style of play to stake out a place in the game’s elite – and make the “big three” a fearsome four – adds even further interest to the ATP tour.
But, if the top men’s players are crowding everyone else out, the women’s game is more welcoming, as their rankings fluctuate more than the men’s. Since 2004, 11 different players have claimed the number one ranking. Furthermore, of the six women to achieve this spot since 2008, four have never won a Grand Slam title. Jacobs says such “fluctuation is inexcusable… How can you have a number one ranked player who hasn’t been able to overcome the hump of winning a major?” If too many women are constantly vying for a number one spot, they may lose the attention of fans.
The return of veterans like Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters to the game, time after time – even after long lay-offs – further highlights this fluctuation in rankings. Even though they are unfit, shaky, and unranked after the time off, they are constantly the favourites to win, displaying the lack competitive matches. Such reappearances of old champions also highlight a growing trend on the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tour: the best players seem to be keeping a light schedule and letting their rankings slip, comfortable in the knowledge that if they face one of the top-seeds early in a major tournament, they will have an excellent chance to win.
The striking discrepancies between the ATP and WTA tours begs the question: can such differences in the game be explained on a technical level? Bryon Weinberg, who is a tennis coach in Toronto and serves as a hitting partner for both the men and women on tour, when they come to Toronto, believes it can. Weinberg emphasizes spin as a key difference in games. The men’s heavy top-spin gives their ball a “higher height over the net in order to have some time to get back into the court.” The women, he explains, “tend to hit the ball extremely flat with a low margin of error, [which makes] the ball arrive to their opponent extremely quickly and, therefore, gets back to them even quicker.” While Weinberg notes that this style of play does not apply to all women, he stresses that it applies more to women than to men and is a “huge strategic mistake.”
Weinberg feels that such a mistake is a result of habit. “When hitting with the women players,” he says, “the mini tennis warm-up is extremely brief, and, right when the first ball is struck at the baseline, it is hit with such pace and no spin that these habits begin to form.” Men do not follow this routine. In their warm-ups, the “ball is hit slower and with more spin…to get some rhythm and a feel for the ball.” Here, Weinberg observes, “exceptions apply to the top women.”
Just who those women are, however, remains to be seen. Without the “star power” of the older generation, women’s tennis receives little individual attention aside from their 100-plus decibel shrieks. The recently completed US Open is testament to this parity-bred anonymity. This year, most of the hype centered on comeback stars, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, not the newly-minted Grand Slam champions of the year, Li Na and Petra Kvitova. Perhaps this is justified; Na and Kvitova were knocked out in the first round, while Williams made it to the final.
Even the little media coverage of the older generation of players is not flattering to the women’s game or to its players. Serena recently made headlines for verbally abusing an umpire, which was not the first confrontation for Williams, who has been on Grand Slam probation for a similar assault at the US Open in 2009. Sharapova, for her part, has always been portrayed to be more about glamour than game: her numerous sponsorships have attracted more attention than her biggest wins, and commentators prefer to remark on her beauty than on her skill. Lastly, the WTA darling, Clijsters, is, yet again, sidelined due to an injury.
The tennis world wants change the women’s game. Macleans’ recent story on the women’s game began as mock-up of a wanted ad, reading “one, preferably two, dominant and consistent female tennis players. Someone who can handle being the centre of attention (if only for a couple of hours every few weeks), is able to withstand high-pitch screams or grunts, and is capable of winning at least one Grand Slam title a year. Please inquire within, at the Women’s Tennis Association.” If only it was that easy for the WTA to find a couple of big-name superstars, who could hopefully put a new, positive spin on the game.