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.