Thursday, September 2, 2010

The importance of power in women's tennis?

The 2010 U.S. Open in tennis is currently under way, and on August 25 the New York Times ran an article entitled How Power Has Transformed Women’s Tennis by Michael Kimmelman. The crux of the article is that female tennis players today are “stronger, bigger, faster, and better trained” than in the past. Commentators have attributed this trend toward physical dominance to two players in particular – Venus and Serena Williams.

At least one major contender, Kim Clijsters, has conceded that the Williams sisters have raised the bar for female players by forcing them to increase their power. By the end of the article Kimmelman questions whether the Williams sisters have redefined the paradigm of what it takes to be a perennial champion in women’s tennis. For example, teenage girls (who have historically found success in tennis, but are not as physically developed as full-grown women) are being held back by professional organizations in their development of the game. The "all-around package" of a good game seems to have taken a backseat to raw power.

Before I share my own thoughts on this situation, I should mention that I do not follow tennis anymore, though I used to watch my fair share when I was younger. With that said, I do not know if there is something that a tennis fan would understand about the fundamentals of the game that I do not, but I do not see the Williams’ domination as particularly shocking or surprising.

As the article seems to suggest, there are two possible ways of approaching the game: power and an all-around game. Furthermore, it seems possible that in the past women maybe were not expected to have power games. However, tennis players, like professionals in any other sport, push the boundaries of what is physically possible - or maybe more accurately, the physical minimum of what it takes to win. For example, just compare football players back when they still wore leather helmets to players today who look and move like human steam engines. My point is, that tennis, like any other sport, must necessarily require physical exertion. In some sports physical power and speed are more important than in others. (Compare football and golf.) In a solo sport like tennis, where the playing field is a large area for one person to cover, maybe the Williams sisters have figured out that raw power and speed trump finesse, balance, and strategy every time. Which brings me to another talking point of the article.

In the article, Jelena Jankovic, a former number one, now ranked third stated:
In the last couple of years, as women’s tennis has become more popular, some of the girls on tour have also been trying to look nicer, more feminine, and, face it, there are fans who like to look at girls in nice tennis dresses … It has become very competitive in this sense, but the level of tennis is very high. It all depends on how you want to develop your brand. Some players want to be known as great tennis players, others for something else.
I think this is a critical point to consider in this discussion. What do people want out of women’s tennis? How “should” the women’s game be? Why are these relevant questions? I think peoples’ expectations of women’s tennis ultimately frame this discussion. As I mentioned earlier, maybe people did not expect such power-focused performances from women’s tennis. And as the above quote points out, some players are known less for their playing ability than their striking beauty. (Anna Kournikova, one of the most famous tennis players of recent memory, never won a major Grand Slam singles title.)

My ultimate point is that physicality is, at the very least, important in a game where the (simplified) goal is to hit the ball past your opponent. Certain strategies (hitting a ball harder and faster than your opponent can) may be better than others (good ball placement), especially if your opponent has the physical capabilities of countering your “other” strategy (running down well-placed hits).

Along similar lines, if the goal of a female tennis player is to win, physicality is also a better attribute than looking good in a tennis skirt. (Not that the two are mutually exclusive.) It seems to me that the Williams’ have not adhered to either society’s or the tennis establishment’s conception of how female tennis players “should” look, “should” develop, or “should” play – and they have found success in doing so.

As a final note, Jamie Foxx offers another perspective in song form: Can I Be Your Tennis Ball? (Credit to a fellow King Hall friend for the video, as well as for the article upon which I based this post.)


N.P. said...

I think the quote about some women choosing to define themselves in the world of tennis by what they wear versus those women who choose to define themselves by their power is an interesting dichotomy. I agree with the author of the post on the fact that Venus and Serena Williams seem to defy this status, but at the same time, they are two of a million women tennis players. Mainly my question in this regard, is why should women have to choose? Ultimately women tennis stars, like their male counterparts, have to shill some sort of product to maintain their status. And in cases like Maria Sharapova, this has diminished her status as a player. Why hasn't this had the same impact on Roger Federer who shills products from razors to swiss candy? It's an open ended question, but one that I can never truly understand.

Sophie said...

I grew up playing competitive tennis and following Venus and Serena very closely. I was also a player who focused on having an “all-around” game, rather than a powerful one. I’ve always admired the Williams’ sisters’ game – both how their skills and the statements they make. While they have definitely used their power to define themselves as champions, they have used their fashion and personalities, too. Venus and Serena often wear colorful and huge earrings, dramatic hairstyles, and bright, unique outfits – calling attention to not only their incredible tennis skills but also their fashion senses. It’s not just their tennis style that defies female tennis stereotypes. Rather, it’s their skills, wardrobes, and attitudes that challenge the labels.

Additionally, the author’s mention of some players known for their beauty (rather than their skill) is something that has always bothered me with women’s tennis. Whenever people asked me what sport I played (and I said tennis), they always said “Oh, like Anna Kournikova!” She has undoubtedly become one of the most well known players yet was not a very good one! This type of thing drives me crazy – people should be evaluating the talent of the woman athlete, not judging her on her beauty!