Some blamed it on Li Na’s shank serve that sconned a Melbourne Park usher 25 rows back. Others pinpointed Victoria Azarenka’s pedicure-related toe injury and subsequent withdrawal from a lead-up tournament. Many zeroed in on the stereophonics, pouts and love-love wipeouts. Even Red Foo – a preposterous looking man as high on life as anyone in recent history – looked a little underwhelmed at times.
That was 12-months ago but the sense that women’s tennis is piggybacked by the men’s game remains. Heavy is the tread whenever the issue of male and female tennis players, pay parity and lopsided output is raised. Jo-Wilfred Tsonga made a right royal hash of it last year – albeit in his second tongue – when he blamed it on hormones. Pat Cash, never the most diplomatic of individuals when it came to such things, once described the women’s game as “two sets of rubbish that lasts only half an hour”. Fellow Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek opined, “80 per cent of the top 100 women are fat pigs”. Ever the charmer, he retired to the locker room, pondered and eventually revised the figure to 75 per cent.
Those who chronicle the game haven’t always added to the quality of discourse. One of the 20th century’s great sportswriters labeled a young Billie Jean King “a chubby, little thing with the hideous, tacky glasses”. Martin Amis later described our own Wendy Turnbull – incredibly – as being “shaped like a Prince Pro tennis racquet”. Even when the women’s game entered a golden era and men’s tennis dulled in comparison, the focus often strayed to matters peripheral – Steffi’s pins, Monica’s grunt, Gabriela’s “bronzed hallucination of fluency and youth”.
In recent times, the WTA and its leading players haven’t necessarily helped. Their ‘Strong is Beautiful’ campaign was a mélange of soft lights, heavy mascara, big boobs, bare butt cheeks, cocktail dresses and the occasional Wilson racket. Several years ago, Maria Sharapova invested in her own boutique range of sweets, complete with lollies shaped as high heels, purses and tennis balls. The day after winning the French Open, she was taste-testing in the factory, giving the seal of approval to her family of gummy bears, including ‘Quirky’ and ‘Sporty.’ Last year in Australia, when questioning turned to her ‘Sugarpova’ range, she laughed so hard they had to call time on the press conference.
Women’s tennis needs players who can transcend their sport, the way Federer did when he ice-skated onto centre court at Wimbledon a little over a decade ago and proceeded to change everything.
The fact that men are obliged to play best of five sets – as opposed to the women’s three – is the inevitable first serve in any front bar or locker room discussion on the topic. But it can also skew the argument. Two years ago, as contrasting Australian Open finals prompted microscopic analysis of dollars earned per minute, champion rower Kim Crow reminded us how sporting worth has little to do with minutes toiled. “The principle of equality in prize-money is static,” she wrote in The Sunday Age. “The best female is just as deserving as the best male.”
Indeed, tournament directors, marketers and sponsors insist that women’s tennis is an equally viable commercial product. Through increasingly gritted teeth, commentators and scribes remind us how these things are cyclical (the first 16 Men’s Slams of the 2000s were shared between 11 players), how the Big 4 currently welded at the top of the men’s game make comparisons redundant and how the women only enjoy pay parity at the major tournaments anyway.
Women’s tennis doesn’t need another discussion about equal pay. It doesn’t need another rant about grunting. It doesn’t need another old fossil with a microphone denigrating a Grand Slam winner for her looks. It doesn’t need another print journalist drawing a line between whacking a forehand and servicing a client in a brothel. It needs a rivalry that can capture our attention. It needs another Graf v Seles, another Evert v Navratilova, another Goolagong v King. It needs someone to come from the clouds and challenge Serena Williams, a concussive, unprecedented, almost unwatchable player. It needs players who can transcend their sport, the way Federer did when he ice-skated onto centre court at Wimbledon a little over a decade ago and proceeded to change everything. It needs to reveal itself from under its hooded warm-up top and engage us, inspire loyalties and earn its keep.
Failing that, a bout of food poisoning that lays Red Foo low for a fortnight should suffice.