The Rally: Dueling Genders II

Thursday, April 11, 2013 /by

Here's the second part of my Rally on sexism in tennis with Kristy Eldredge, who writes the blog Overhead Smash. Follow her @AnnKittenplan. 

You can see the first part of our discussion here.

*****

Kristy,

I was thinking of our subject again yesterday while I was reading The Sea, by John Banville. I like his writing, as always, but this time his main character's attitude seems gratingly sexist to me. I'm not sure I would have thought about it the same way a few years ago. I'm also not sure how I would feel going back and re-reading some of my old favorites like Bellow or Roth or Mailer or Updike or Walker Percy, none of whom would be mistaken for a feminist sympathizer.

Anyway, I think you're right that the quality of women's tennis gets compared, negatively, to the men's game in part because the two tours are so often seen at the same time. You don't go to an NBA game and then watch a WNBA game right after it, but you do see men's and women's tennis matches played one right after the other on Centre Court. Few would criticize Brittney Griner for not being able to do everything LeBron James does, but many do criticize women tennis players for not being able to, say, serve like the men. You may be amazed by Maria Sharapova's winners, but someone can always say, "She's not as effortless as Federer." In this sense, the intertwining of the tours doesn't help the WTA, because it can make it harder to appreciate how special the women are as athletes.

As for moonballs, I agree that they don't deserve sniggering; as Kerber said after her match with Wozniacki in Indian Wells, it's a legitimate tactic (though it isn't one that I'd like to see a whole lot more of). But I don't think I've seen Nadal throw up the type of shot that Wozniacki and Kerber were throwing up that night. He'll go high to a player's backhand, but not sky-high. 

You ask why the women don't play five sets at the Slams. I know those events would be loath to make that change; they already have their hands full squeezing everything into two weeks. For me, I don't mind keeping the 3/5 disparity, because I don't see a good reason to mess with the singular success of the majors—those tournaments are clearly doing something right. But I could see having both the men and women play best-of-three until the final, and then having them both play best-of-five in the championship match. I didn't have a problem with that format for the men at the Olympics last year (but please, let’s have tiebreakers in all final sets). One thing I wouldn’t want is best-of-five for both. This opinion may be sexist in origin, but I don’t think too little tennis is one of the Slams' problems.

Here's one real difference between the tours at the moment: The WTA allows on-court coaching during tour events, while the men don't. This week Bruce Jenkins at SI.com wrote that the women should ban it again. He quoted Mary Carillo, who says that calling out their coaches makes the women look weak-minded, as if they need their daddies to fix things for them. What do you think? 

I'll start by saying that there are plenty of good reasons for keeping on-court coaching out of tennis. For some, it violates the sport’s tradition of one-on-one, figure-it-out-yourself competition. Others, rightfully, don't think that showing grown men yelling at young women on TV is a great image for the game—though not all of the coaches yell or scold. It also may, possibly, make the women too reliant on their coaches at tour events and leave them lost at the Slams, where coaching isn’t allowed—many think this is what happens to Caroline Wozniacki, though that hasn’t been the case for Maria Sharapova. 

But I don't agree with the idea that a woman, by definition, looks fragile and helpless just because she calls her coach on court. It never occurred to me that Wozniacki was somehow deficient because she listens to her father's advice, the same way it never crossed my mind that Michael Jordan looked weak for running a play called by Phil Jackson, or that Tiger Woods or Wozniacki’s boyfriend, Rory McIlroy, will look stupid for taking their caddies’ advice at the Masters this weekend. All athletes, team and individual, are coached. That includes the men; no one would claim that Roger Federer was a feeble-minded player because he listened to Paul Annacone's tips in the locker room a few minutes before a match. All-time tough guy Pancho Gonzalez was coached, through hand signals from a friend in the stands, on virtually every point of his win in the final of the 1949 U.S. Nationals. 

It's unfortunate, visually, that only the women who can be coached on court, and maybe the tour should discourage the in-your-face jabbering. But the WTA didn't change the rule because it thought women needed more help than men. The tour thought it added entertainment value, and that it would stop players from getting illegal advice from the stands. I can take or leave on-court coaching, but I don't believe it's a sign of weakness to use it. 

Finally, Kristy, you talked about how you were surprised to find out that women like Graf and Evert had won more majors than Federer. Comparing players of different eras in the greatest-ever debate is difficult at best; comparing men and women in that same debate is borderline useless—but some of us like to try anyway. Martina and Steffi have more majors than Federer, that's true. But he has the most among the men, while they trail Margaret Court in that department. So, you might ask, why not make Court, who has 24 majors to Federer’s 17, the GOAT?

It's true, there's no reason why a woman can't be seen as the greatest tennis player ever. Graf’s numbers, like Court's, are hard to argue against. She won all four majors at least four times, a feat no male player has approached, and she's the all-time leader, man or woman, in weeks at No. 1. But the player at the top of my list is Federer, partially because of his stats, but also for the entirely subjective—and possibly sexist—reason that he’s the best player I’ve ever seen.

Maybe I'll evolve on this question someday, too...

*****

Steve,

As far as literature goes, I’m reading John Cheever—a genius writer, a beautiful writer. I don’t know where he falls on the sexism scale, and I’m so enraptured by his writing that I don’t care. Most writers embody the attitudes of their day, without examining them—they’re anthropologists only aesthetically. I’m not saying they’re all sexist pigs; no writer worth his salt sees women entirely one-dimensionally. If he does, he needs to earn his salt in other ways, like wit and insight.

Oh, if only we could stay on books—but let’s go to GOATs just for a second. Federer is the GOAT in part because he’s a man, is that what you're saying? Do you mean, as in, the way men stand in for the universal self? The default self? So Navratilova can’t be the GOAT because she’s the Other? Would she be an asterisked GOAT—*woman?

You said that Federer is the best player you’ve ever seen. And I think that says volumes. Your fan favorite is Nadal, I believe, but Federer has impressed you as the best player ever. As a Fed fan, I’m happy to hear that he trumps Nadal in your eyes. But I’d love to hear you explain why and where his brilliance outshines, say, Navratilova’s. Is he more inventive, more tireless, more graceful? That’s subjective, an aesthetic judgment, but it’s perfectly possible—it’s hard to think of a more graceful player than Fed, man or woman, though Henin comes close. Is he faster, leaps higher, has a better serve? (Is he more clutch at coming through five sets—yes, that one’s inarguable.)

As for on-court coaching, I’m with Carillo. I think it does make the women look weak, or at least weaken their competitive personae, which are obviously key. The first time I heard the stony, fierce, grimly purposeful Sharapova being coached/scolded on a changeover, I couldn’t believe my ears. How could she allow someone to talk to her that way? When it’s the woman’s father, I think the problems multiply a thousandfold. Piotr Wozniacki’s scoldings of Caroline are justly famous on YouTube. How can it possibly help a player to have someone (especially her father) tell her what to do and not to do, when she's behind in a match and already fuming? Maybe it helps to be reminded of a tactic once in a while (“oh yeah, go after the backhand”), but wouldn’t most players already be thinking those things? And the use-value of coaching is almost negligible once you’re up and on the court alone again. So with the current, and I think gruesome, practice of miking every word of the changeover chats, we just get a lecture for its “entertainment” value, and we squirm for the player, knowing how little it’s going to help her.  

Or at least, that’s how it seems to me. Your point about Michael Jordan running a play called by Phil Jackson is true as far as it goes. These athletes are following instructions, and they’ll confer soon afterwards about how it went. But those are team sports and the players are conferring in groups with the coach. There isn’t the spectacle of a coach for an individual player giving him the what-for for executing or not executing.

I’m not saying tennis coaches don’t mean well. In a YouTube clip from 2010, Michael Joyce tells Sharapova she didn’t do anything wrong, her opponent just raised her level. She just needs to go after short balls, to remember to work the forehand, etc. Maria nods faintly at some of these points, but snaps “What?” when he tells her she stopped using her shoulder on her serve. The fact is, to me, she and Wozniacki both look utterly miserable when their coaches are delivering their analyses. They look like they want to scream, “Do you think I don’t know all this? Do you think I didn’t try that exact thing in the last game?” They almost never say a word during the consultations—and courtesy of the microphone, we at least know they never say “Thanks, great point, I feel ready to play better now!” Instead they sit brooding, looking at times like sulky children. I personally think the women players are diminished by the sight and sound of this ritual. 

The men are also watched like hawks by their coaches, of course. Paul Annacone is as involved in Fed’s matches as Piotr Wozniacki is in Caro’s. And I mean, maybe Annacone is dying to go down there and remind Fed of a tactic. But one of my favorite sights in a Fed match is him sitting brooding on a changeover. Is he processing what just happened? Planning tactics? Or thinking “What’s the point of this? I’m just a big nothing!” like Tommy Haas? (Unlikely.) The point is, it’s unknowable and I think that adds to the suspense of the match. And one last thing—I think I the on-court coaching is subtly unfair to the women because it makes the men seem more mature because they’re facing the match alone. Again that relates to persona, and it's just a matter of perception, but that is part of sports. 

Boy, I had a lot to say about that. Maybe I’ll leave it there, since this whole area is a really deep well, as commenter Michele pointed out yesterday. Other commenters have made many good points and I want to quickly address a few of them. It’s true Stosur was totally unfairly lumped into the withdrawal criticism when she and Azarenka withdrew on the same day from Indian Wells. It’s also true Novak has completely erased his early record of retirements—he’s now a trooper. It’s true Vika has been criticized for her casual leggings, but I’ve never heard a word against Kuznetsova’s shorts. And—this needs to be said—just because I wrote yesterday about a sexist tinge to some male tennis commentary, it doesn’t mean the field as a whole is riddled with it. Generally I find the match commentary balanced and respectful for both genders.

What Steve suggested for this Rally was the issue of increased attention to sexism in tennis recently. But both of us are trying to discuss matters that are hard to quantify. At any rate, at least it’s provided some lively discussion.

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