Open Dialogue

by: Steve Tignor | November 08, 2006

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This week editor Kamakshi Tandon and I will be discussing Johnette Howard’s 2005 book The Rivals, about the lives and careers of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.

Hi Steve,

Well, despite my best efforts, it looks like I clocked in even later this time.

That's a very interesting concept of Howard's, and yours -- the idea of the women's tour as an ongoing dialogue: "What should the female athlete look like? How should she behave? Perform? Trade on her sex appeal? And would customers pay to watch them play?”

Even though it isn't the main focus of the book, one of its most compelling parts is the section on Billie Jean King and Gladys Heldman's struggle to set up the women's tour in the early seventies, which allowed players like Evert and Navratilova the security of knowing they could make a living from the game. A Long Way, Baby, Grace Lichenstein's book about the women's tour in 1973, is metnioned in the Rivals and is a great 'live' look at nature of this 'dialogue' during that time: a tussle between the roles of wife vs. sportswoman, underlaid with the larger tussle between the traits of femininity vs. athleticism.

Evert and Navratilova advanced the dialogue, with Evert demonstrating that an athlete could be feminine while Navratilova took the notion that a female could be an athlete to a new level with her fitness and diet regimes.

Now, though, athleticism *is* attractively feminine. Moreover, taking pains over your appearance on court no longer seems controversial or particularly vain, as it may have in the nineties -- e.g. Michael Mewshaw's 1993 Ladies of the Court talks about the split between female pros who wore makeup on court and those who scorned it, not to mention that feather trims had to be worn extremely judiciously.

As for the nature of the dialogue today, is it fair to say it concentrates on the tussle between the roles of sportswoman vs. celebrity? Monica Seles is probably the first example of the two coming into play as distinct goals, with Anna Kournikova naturally the high watermark. Let's not forget that thanks to Kournikova's cautionary tale, we now have a whole generation of female pros whose mantra is "tennis comes first."

The tension still exists, however, and what taking on the role of celebrity does for players is up the stakes and elevate the pressure. Sharapova's "I feel pretty" campaign from the US Open is a good example (not to mention the perfect illustration that the femininity vs. competitive athlete dicthotomy continues to exist to this day). The advertising buzz around her going into the event magnified her eventual victory at the tournament -- the reward of living up to the hype. But had she lost early, the team would have been left feeling pretty... stupid. (Remember Andy's mojo?) And you can bet Sharapova wold have had to answer more pointed questions about underachiving and distraction than, say, Kuznetsova.

RodapovaOn reflection, though, it's nice to see how broad the current dialogue is (though it was broad in the 1970s too). Sharapova is striving to show you can have it both ways. Clijsters is apparently about to opt for old route of marriage and motherhood. Justine Henin-Hardenne is the single-minded career woman with husband in tow. Amelie Mauresmo's sexual orientation is a non-issue. Martina Hingis showed that you can walk away from it all -- and now, is showing that you can walk back in again. Freedom, choice and independence is what this was all about, after all.

And while it was negative treatment that spurred the creation of a women's tour, it did ensure that the last question in the dialogue above -- would customers pay to watch them play -- has been answered. Doubles players are still wondering.

But as you said, Steve, it's regrettable that it created a schism between the women's and men's game. Something that often annoys me is the habit female pros have of referring to "women's tennis" -- "thanks for supporting women's tennis," or "women's tennis is so great right now." It's hard to imagine a male pro winning a tournament and then saying in his acceptance speech, "thanks for supporting men's tennis."

It's an unnecessary distinction, and it's odd to see the two frequently portrayed as opposing camps. Many people -- maybe most -- prefer one over the other, but how many *only* watch one?

But it may be a hard bridge to cross. The following is a little out of sync right now, but this is how I'd have framed it a few years ago: The men think they're superior because they're better players, while the women think they're superior because they're bigger stars.

Can the twain ever meet?

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