Women in tennis – what the deuce?!

Wimbledon is almost over, and it’s been a particularly fine competition this year in my opinion. Though I’m not the biggest tennis enthusiast in the world, I love Wimbledon and because I happen to have had nothing to do the last couple of weeks I’ve watched practically every match covered by the BBC. I’m struggling to work out where I stand on the sport from a feminist perspective, however.

On the one hand, tennis is blatantly sexist. Like many sports, most of the markers and rules for achieving success are geared around masculine ideals of strength, stamina, power and speed. Because women cannot compete on these terms, tennis enforces a strict gender segregation, with two totally different competitions for each gender, two separate world rankings, and even different sets of tactics and rule variations. Women’s matches are shorter and rely less on the power of one’s serve (though the closer to a male-type serve you can achieve, the better you will do). Until 2007, men earned more prize money than women for the same accomplishments.

On the other hand, tennis is a wonderful sport and I wouldn’t want the format to change, because it is a great format for producing exciting and competitive games for both men and women. Indeed, women’s games in my opinion are just as great to watch as men’s, though perhaps they are let down by only going to three sets, meaning that there is less time for the match’s momentum to ebb and flow to produce the really stunning five-setters you very occasionally get in the men’s competition. Women’s tennis has had just as many crowd-pleasing stars as men’s. This year’s Wimbledon has had if anything more great games on the women’s side than the men’s, and has thrown up relatively unknown and exciting women players like Pironkova and Kvitova who have played astonishingly well to get to the semis. The men’s has also been great, and I’ll put it on record that Federer remains my favourite player of all time to watch even when he’s losing, but it doesn’t take a raging feminist to appreciate the female tennis game.

Furthermore, tennis can be a forum for female empowerment, to an extent. Many top women players, like the Williams sisters or Sharapova, have inspiring life-stories and provide amazing role models for women seeking to be the best they can be. Such players clearly push themselves to fulfill their absolute potential, and dedicate their hearts and souls to their sport, and in a way they prove that women are capable of just as remarkable feats as men, albeit at a personal level if not an objective, overall one.

In many ways, tennis is an excellent test-case for sports-feminism, because compared to other sports it is comparatively egalitarian. Wimbledon always dominates the headlines when it’s on, yet the other main back-page sports news generally involves things like football, rugby and cricket, all of which are much less advanced in terms of gender issues than tennis. Yet it also says something that a sport like tennis which is one of the most gender-equal in the world is still highly segregationist and fundamentally sexist at the basic level of rules and objectives. It is worth noting that one of the most press-worthy events of this Wimbledon, Isner and Mahut’s Homeric 3-day game, which was lauded as a fine example of what makes tennis great, was essentially predicated on the power and impenetrability of the male service-game. Women, who are much more easily “broken” (to use some nasty tennis jargon), could never maintain such a situation. In my opinion, amazing as it was, Isner-Mahut was extremely poor tennis, and reflects a worrying trend in the men’s game towards focusing on sheer power and strength, which is regrettably rewarded in terms of results, but produces far less engaging games for spectators. It may well be that in years to come, the men’s competition will be full of boring 11 hour slog-fests, and attention will refocus on the women, if they continue to showcase the great tennis qualities of skill, tactics, accuracy and grace.

Perhaps this is another reason why tennis is a good case-study for gender issues: the sport itself encapsulates these two sides of athleticism. Stength vs skill, speed vs accuracy and power vs grace – would it be an oversimplification to say that these binaries are analogous to male vs female? Will we continue to see a reinforcement of the gender binary by greater attention to strength for men and agility for women, or will a renewed focus on a fusion of these two sets of qualities bring about a challenge to the binary? Unfortunately, the last great player who seemed to balance both sides of the sport to perfection, Roger Federer, appears to be towards the end of his career, defeated this year by a Czech player with (you guessed it) a massive serve in only the 1/4 finals. Nadal, meanwhile, is still in his ascendency, though in my opinion his success is based just as much on his ridiculous top-spin and accuracy as his brute strength, though this latter is indeed formidable. Who knows what next year will hold.


  1. Fred

    Are there any sports that don’t involve stamina, power or speed? I can only think of shooting. I think saying all sport is sexist is a bit rich. Yes, they are judged on ‘masculine’ traits, and separate classes are required for men and women, but this isn’t sexist, or at least, not in a harmful way. And it’s not like there’s an alternative: allow men and women to compete? bar women from sport? have no sport at all? come up with sports that do not require stamina, power or speed?

  2. John

    Jasmine, that’s an interesting and perceptive comment there. Fred, I would just say that even if there’s no obvious solution, it should be recognised that the fact that the most popular sports worldwide are overtly masculine is objectively sexist. It may seem pernickety, but it’s important that we see that even popular activities like sports help to entrench a fundamental sexism in world society, because it’s part of recognising how deep the problem runs, and until this depth IS recognised it’s very difficult to tackle. There are many sports and other energetic activities that are not based on masculine traits; gymnastics and ballet are two that spring to mind. Other activities that would allow for equal competition could be conceived of. The question is: why are activities that are overtly masculine so important and popular, not how can we allow women to participate in them equally.

    • Fred

      Good point with gymnastics, although I think I’d draw the line at ballet. While it is a very physical activity, it is an art rather than a sport.

      With regards to masculine activities being more popular, I hate to say it, but it’s due to the fact that most people who are competitive in nature are men rather than women. This results in not only men’s sports being better competed and better funded, but having a much larger fan base too. There’s also the fact that marketers use televised sport to show adverts that tell men that sport is masculine, and that to be a competent man you must be good at sport, which further circulates the idea that all (good) sport is masculine. Women’s leagues exist for nearly every sport, but until they have the fan base and funding of their male counterparts they haven’t got a hope.

      Male sport isn’t going to go away, and the title ‘sport’ implies activities that promote stamina/speed/power, and I’ll stick my neck out and say that’s exactly what makes them fun to watch. I doubt that women’s rugby is less exciting to watch than men’s, I’d probably take an interest in matches if it were (at least as much as I take in the men’s matches anyway). The problem is not with the sport itself, but the lack of funding and support.

      In terms of women competing with men, well, in the end, they are smaller, lighter and less powerful. As much as I want women and men to be treated equally, our genetics gives us some hurdles we can’t overcome, and the physical differences between men and women are one such hurdle. Instead of moping about it, allowing women to compete in their own league is the best we can do. The challenge now is to make those leagues as popular as the men’s. I think the best anyone can do in this situation is go along and support the local women’s football team when they play…

  3. Mathilde

    I’m not a big expert on sports, especially not on tennis, but I will talk about what I know. Not all sports are sexist, or offer a gender separation : horse riding, for instance, is completely mixed ; the same goes for sailing, and both of those sports need strenght, stamina and physical resistance. In the case of horse-riding, the difference in weights can also be an advantage or an inconvenient, and yet there are no gender separation.

    I believe the idea that women and men can’t compete in the same league is just a cultural construction. We are so used to see women and men compete in different teams that we don’t even think about the possibility of mixed ones. What would be so stupid about a mixed football team? Except from the fact that it wouldn’t attract people as much as the masculine teams do.

    The industry of sport is certainly sexist (see the nonexistent media coverage the female team of most sports get, even if they perform really well), but sport shouldn’t be, and the physical difference isn’t the real problem. That’s why, when we were little, we were frequently separated in sport class ; there wasn’t any objective reason for us to be so, since the physical difference between boys and girls is school is virtually non-existent (some are small, some are bigger-, the real difference comes later), but we are used to think that boys are stronger, bigger and faster.

    Besides, this separation is systematic, when some sports really don’t need one : I don’t see why women should be kept out of the ski jumping in the Winter Olympics, and for that matter, why this sport needs a separation between genders.

    • Fred

      Good points there, I agree there are many sports in which men and women can compete side by side: Queens’ has an excellent mixed lacrosse team which is well respected within the college sporting community. There are however plenty of sports where men and women simply could not compete, such as rugby or rowing, and nearly all athletics (just look at the records for men and the records for women in athletics, there is always a large difference). You could try and create weight limits, similar to those in boxing in order to have reasonably physically matched teams, but in the end the heavier, and hence male dominated teams would probably be the ones people cared about. I do agree that for things like ski jumping there really is no point in separating men and women in ski-jumping, and luckily the IOC agrees; they will be competing side by side at this year’s winter Olympics.

      I still stand by my point that in most sports, there is enough of a difference between the performance of women and men to warrant the separation of the competition. Making women run side by side in a 100m race would be pointless, and frankly damaging to the cause of feminism (whatever that might be), as women would be seen consistently to lose to men, furthering the prejudice that womens’ sport isn’t worth investing in/watching.

      • Mathilde

        You’re quite right, but I think this argument only stand at the highest level in sport, where the athletes are dedicated to do their best, reach their limits : it is true, in that case, that women will generally be beaten by men.
        But do you really believe this is true at the amateur level, or at school, for instance? We are almost always separated, when sport is merely a hobby, a class, or at least not a priority. The difference isn’t so obvious then, but still, they are no mixed teams (I speak in general : my school was completely unsexist on that point, every team was mixed, but I know for a fact that this generally not the case).

        I wasn’t really saying that every sport should be completely mixed, but that we should get rid of the idea that women are necessarily physically inferior to the men in every case. This could lead to a change in some sports at the professional level, who seriously don’t need the separation (BTW, about ski-jumping, do you know that the record in that sport is hold by a woman… who wasn’t allowed to compete in Toronto?), and at the amateur scale, could change the perceptions people have about women and sports – and the perception women have about themselves).

  4. Vicky Woolley

    ‘In terms of women competing with men, well, in the end, they are smaller, lighter and less powerful. As much as I want women and men to be treated equally, our genetics gives us some hurdles we can’t overcome, and the physical differences between men and women are one such hurdle.’

    Let us not forget that it was once seriosuly believed that women could not go to university because of the physical differences between men and women: in terms of the energy they were capable of applying to mental activities, even the size of their brains. That turned out to be nonsense.

    Men and women, as groups, are generally differently sized. Yet, as someone who trains daily for triathlon, I can guarantee that many women are stronger, more powerful and have more stamina than many men. Judging men and women as groups obscures the existence of such women, and is necessarily inaccurate. Not to mention how offensive it can be when a male couch-potato extols the superiority of the male body in front of a tired female athlete in training! (Not that that’s happening here)

    Several specific sports have been mentioned here, and I think Tri makes an interesting case. In Ironman triathlon (2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike and a marathon, straight after each other) men and women at the elite level are separated by about 20 minutes. 20 minutes over that massive distance: it’s not a lot is it? The female record is 8hr 19min and male is 8hr 05min. We need to stop thinking of men and women as if there is a massive gulf between our capabilities: the toughest endurance sport in the world can only find 14 minutes between a man and a woman.

    That’s not to say that men and women should compete directly in all sports at the elite level, though one wonders why they shouldn’t in many cases. What is very dangerous about conversations like this though is the effect they can have on many women. The distorted idea of female (in)ability that judging women as a group to be ‘ [relatively] weak, not powerful and without stamina’ creates puts so many women off of sport and other activities such as hiking, motorbiking and so on. Its practical effect is to damage female participation in enjoyable and healthy activities because they seem to be fully the domain of men.

    • Mathilde

      I couldn’t have put it better.

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