Golden age of women’s tennis demands more respect - Iga Swiatek, Naomi Osaka and others deserve that
We’re now in a golden age of women’s tennis, writes Caitlin Thompson, with legends still sticking around to compete for that one last trophy or use their platform to push for good, but also featuring an entirely new crop of faces with games as varied as their personalities. It deserves the historical context and contemporary commentary that explains it and invites new audiences in.
Iga Swiatek of Poland celebrates her victory against Sofia Kenin of the United States in the Singles Final on Court Philippe-Chatrier during the French Open Tennis Tournament at Roland Garros
Tennis has found itself on the right side of history more than not: after Althea Gibson broke the colour barrier at the French Open in 1952 (upending decades of vile “tradition” at white-only clubs in the process), Arthur Ashe used his Grand Slam-winning platform to lead the call to end apartheid, and the sport’s relative embrace of gay and trans athletes in the ‘70s and ‘80s put it well ahead of the rest of the sporting world still grappling with race, identity and sexuality.
But even in a modern context where women’s professional and Olympic sports are growing in audience and revenues, tennis has been an outlier for gender equity since the creation of the WTA Tour and Billie Jean King’s testimony in front of Congress to pass the landmark US legislation called Title IX, which guarantees girls and women equal access in education and athletics. It’s also a rarity in that women and men play roughly the same calendar of events, enjoy roughly the same amount of prize money, and compete alongside one another on the court in mixed doubles.
It’s encouraging, then, to find the sport has an equal following among men and women and that broadcast audiences between men’s and women’s events are close to parity in a sport that still under-amplifies and under-covers women — by as much as 41%, according to a 2018 study. So it’s one of the more baffling traditions of the sport that the commentators haven’t remotely kept up with the evolving sport they cover and the larger media world of which they take part.
You only need to be a casual viewer to start to absorb the tennis world’s conventional wisdom that women’s matches are usually called by women and men - and occasionally women only - but the gender divide is most rigid for men’s matches. Finding a non-male voice in the booth for a men’s match for play-by-play, colour commentary or desk analysis is a tough errand, and it highlights the need to make better efforts at diversifying the tennis press corps, in every way imaginable.
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This tradition leads to (among other things) a completely out-of-touch, and out of date understanding of the women’s game. Here's a recent example from coverage of the Stuttgart tournament, where an all-male panel on Tennis Channel seemed to be discussing a different match from the final contest between Ash Barty and Aryna Sabalenka - which featured variety, touch and mixed gameplans from both players - and instead categorised most women’s players on the WTA as playing “Big Babe Tennis” with “no plan B.”
Pam Shriver, one of the livelier commentators on rival network ESPN, captured the back and forth and used the clip to prompt a Twitter discussion about the dated characterisation of women’s tennis, to which user @BAHdeDAH replied: “Is there a ‘Plan B’ for this kind of reporting?”
The term “Big Babe Tennis” was coined by Mary Carillo in the 1990s to describe the baseline-centric, groundstroke-heavy game embodied by players such as Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters, among others. At the time, it represented a shift away from the craftier all-court style played by Martina Hingis and her namesake, Martina Navratilova. It was - like many of Carillo’s bon mots - a perfect summation of the era. It was also the 1990s.
We’re now in a golden age of women’s tennis, with legends still sticking around to compete for that one last trophy or use their platform to push for good, but also featuring an entirely new crop of faces with games as varied as their personalities. The fact that 13 different women have won Grand Slams in the past five years is usually used as a ding on the women’s game, as if dominance and a nearly predetermined outcome are as exciting to spectators as witnessing a first (or in some cases, an only) moment of Grand-Slam glory.
The ascendance of Naomi Osaka and Ash Barty’s current stranglehold on the number one ranking are two of the narratives that are dominating current tennis conversation around the women’s game, but you can make a great case for the most remarkable women’s tennis story in the past year being Polish teen Iga Swiatek’s glorious and joyous run to the 2020 French Open title.
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Anyone following junior tennis saw Swiatek coming from miles away — she won titles at junior Wimbledon, Roland Garros and the Fed Cup before turning pro in 2019. But it was the style in which she ran to the title, dropping fewer than five games in any match and deploying the variety of Barty, the grind of a Halep and the artillery of a Sabalenka or Osaka with a giant smile on her face made anyone watching want to spread the word.
Tennis resonates among a mixed generation, mixed gender and global audience because of the variety of how it is played and the personalities and styles of the people who play it. And it deserves the historical context and contemporary commentary that explains it and invites new audiences in. Lucky for tennis, that while the dusty commentariat gets its house in order, we’ll have players such as Swiatek to make the case.