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The Feminist Breakthrough That Was, and Is, Women’s Tennis

To some, the quality and longevity that separates Serena Williams from the others makes the rest look mediocre – but such a myopic understanding fails to uncover the depth in the women’s game.

Petra Kvitova during a game in August 2013. Credit: slgc/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Petra Kvitova during a game in August 2013. Credit: slgc/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

During the 2016 Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of a WTA promotional event, the then-39th best woman player in the world was asked to run around the stadium’s courtyards, requesting and snapping selfies with people about the grounds. She was Jelena Ostapenko; the event was titled ‘Full of Surprises Selfie Scavenger Hunt’. The video is on YouTube and it is fun to watch the then perky teen, now 20, run around as if trying to beat a timer, fulfilling the request for selfies with different spectators – a volunteer, with the trophy, someone with a red cap, standing up on a bench, etc.

Ostapenko displays a dorky enthusiasm and an almost workmanlike approach to the task. It is also interesting to see the video now – in late 2017 – wondering who in that crowd or that band of people lucky to be in a selfie with Ostapenko even knew that she was a tennis player. The 39th best woman player in the world is huge but the casual fan could name the top 10 or, at most, 15. That’s the competitive nature of the sport.

And the casual fan would learn less than a year later that there is nothing workmanlike to the Latvian’s game. Her tennis packs an unpredictable wallop, the equivalent of a roller-coaster ride that appears to go on longer than it should. The pursed lips and a sudden stop after an unforced error, the flipping of the braid in the middle of a baseline rally and, most of all, the relentless targeting of her favourite legal parts of the court: the paints.

The absence of Serena Williams

Fearless is the wrong word. She knows them in her bones that her game is all lines and corners, which is the reason watching her play is part unrivalled excitement and part exasperation. This is also why the WTA part of the 2017 French Open was one of the greatest recent tournaments to watch. Tennis’s latest prodigy established something believed to be rare in today’s game – that there exist prodigies.

Serena Williams has been absent from on-court conversations in WTA this year. That’s a strange and also partly inaccurate statement because Williams is one of the Grand Slam winners. She won the 2017 Australian Open while eight weeks pregnant. Her absence became an opportunity for the WTA tour to demonstrate its depth.

Five different players held the no. 1 ranking in the women’s tour in 2017. Three reached the summit for the first time: Karolina Pliskova, Garbine Muguruza and Simona Halep (Angelique Kerber and Williams being the other two). To some, the quality and longevity that separates Williams from the others makes the rest of the tour look seemingly mediocre, so the stability of the Big 4 on the men’s tour has always made naysayers argue for one version of the game: the men’s.

However, such a myopic understanding would fail to uncover the depth in the women’s game – the large number of players who routinely go deep in tournaments, the unpredictable nature of the matches and what these things do to the overall quality. At almost every Grand Slam in 2017, the women’s tour has produced the more compelling matches and results.

In A Long Way, Baby, a book about women’s tennis in 1973, Grace Lichtenstein writes, “One of the pleasures of women’s tennis was the contrast that singles opponents often presented in looks, style and attitude, a contrast I often found lacking in the men’s game. It was something like seeing a prize-fight with a bantamweight going against a light-heavy, or a football game with a speed flanker one-on-one against a guard.”

The masters of comebacks

The net-rushers have become extinct in either forms of the game but more than four decades on, Lichtenstein’s observation might still be true, especially considering the top-heavy men’s game having become boring. The host of characters in the women’s game, with their stories of triumph and disaster on and off the court, make for fascinating narratives on the other hand.

Petra Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion, was the victim of home invasion and robbery during the 2016 off-season; the knife-wielding attacker wounded her tennis-playing left hand. Initially expected to be out for six months, Kvitova progressed well and announced her return at the French Open in May, reaching the second round. He first win since the attack was an emotional one and almost every subsequent appearance on court was a symbol of joy and pure love for the game. She got her first title since return the very next month in Birmingham, on her favourite surface – grass – defeating Ashleigh Barty.

Barty had her own story. After taking a break from tennis in 2014, she played cricket, training with Queensland Fire and later signing up to play for Brisbane Heat, at the inaugural women’s Big Bash League. She returned to tennis in 2016, playing singles and (with Casey Dellacqua) doubles. Barty’s steady rise sprang fire in Birmingham when she defeated eventual Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza en route to the final. Her best 2017 performance came during the Asian swing at Wuhan, where she beat four top-10 opponents on the trot: Johanna Konta, Agnieszka Radwanska, Karolina Pliskova and Jelena Ostapenko. She lost the final to Caroline Garcia, but Barty was now no. 20, a jump of 251 spots from January 2017.

Barty was taken out of the US Open by Sloane Stephens, the US Open Champion, whose astonishing run is its own boulevard of dreams. Ranked 957 at the end of July after long injury layoffs, Stephens put together an unbelievable summer. She had deep runs in Toronto and Cincinnati, won the US Open and finished that week with a top-20 ranking.

Almost any of them could have been the WTA Comeback Player of the Year: Petra Kvitova, Ashleigh Barty or Sloane Stephens.

Battle of the sexes

The women’s tour, predictably, has bigger battles to fight. An everyday sexism and misogyny has always plagued the game, even though tennis is that rare sport where the women’s game enjoys the kind of popularity that other sports would give an arm and a leg for. If it is Matthew Syed one year, it is Shamil Tarpischev or Raymond Moore in another. Or tennis’s own John McEnroe in 2017.

In Wimbledon this year, Victoria Azarenka was making her Grand Slam return after after having given birth to a child in December 2016. During one of the post-match press conferences, she was asked, “Did Roger Federer with four kids doing the rounds for so many years kind of inspire you?” Azarenka, with a habit of treating the press and the court the same way, replied that with all due respect to Federer, it was vastly different. At the same Wimbledon, Andy Murray, the ATP’s premier feminist, was asked a question after his loss to Sam Querrey that began, “Querrey is the first American player to make a major semi-final since 2009…”. Murray didn’t wait for the journalist to complete the question and interrupted him to state that Sam was the first male player.

If it was Billie Jean King in the early years, tennis’s leading lady for a long time now has been Venus Williams. Venus of course brought the fighter back on court in 2017, reaching the finals of the Australian Open, Wimbledon, the WTA Finals in Singapore and the US Open semifinals. However, multiple generations of WTA players wouldn’t be remiss in breaking into a panegyric each time during a post-match handshake with the elder Williams: it was Williams’s essay in 2006 that paved the way for equal prize money in Wimbledon and French Open.

And while the glorious Venus script is still a work in progress, we had the film Battle of the Sexes this year. Emma Stone essayed Billie Jean King and Steve Carell played Bobby Riggs. It was a celluloid version of the glamorous tennis match between the two in Houston’s Astrodome in 1973, the year recorded in Lichtenstein’s book. A popular opinion about the film is how a Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman in the film) sort of sexist figure opposing equal prize money wouldn’t be out of place as a regular official in the affairs of tennis in 2017. As Lichtenstein writes in her book, [Billie Jean King] “epitomised the revolution women’s tennis had built out of the old conflict between athletics and femininity. I had avidly followed the growth of women’s professional tennis since its beginning in 1968, but I had never thought about its real impact. I began to realise that it was, and is, a feminist breakthrough.”

In 2017, a lot has changed and yet nothing has. We are still told how much WTA is good for us. We are still supplied the rhetoric wondering if a WTA player could beat an ATP player. All things considered, the WTA is a revolution and it will be streamed.

Aditya Shrikrishna is a freelance film critic from Chennai, India, with a newfound love for tennis writing.