Trouble in Women’s Tennis

I enjoy watching tennis; my mom and grandfather brought me up in the game.  I have enjoyed playing the sport and really enjoy watching the best in the game perform.  The sport, especially singles, pits athletes mano-a-mano where specific skills are needed to overcome an opponent.  We see great feats of power and finesse, supreme strategy and jaw-dropping otherworldly championship clutch.  The game has an inherent complexity at the highest level of performance and history often elevates a tournament’s and match’s drama and meaning.  I would argue to really enjoy the game (like almost anything else in life), one needs context.  To understand the present, one needs to know about the past. This context (awareness) also enables one to predict the future.  Somewhat.

Obviously, Wimbledon is underway, nearing its dramatic conclusions.  The women’s semi-finals are going on now.  In one semi-final is a match-up between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.  These two are pretty much the best in the women’s game today and Serena owns this non-rivalry.  Serena owns everyone right now.  In fact, she is up a set and up a break in the second set (as I write this).  If she wins this championship, she will have completed her second “Serena slam” (in possession of all four majors) and if she also wins the U.S. Open in September, she will have completed the calendar Grand Slam, where a player wins all four majors in the same calendar year (Serena did not win all four majors last year but she did win the U.S. Open; a win here at Wimbledon this week will mean she is in possession of the 2014 Open and the other three consecutive majors of 2015).  Either way, she’s on top of the game right now.

Part of the enjoyment of watching tennis is listening to the commentators (other than the buffoon Chris Fowler of ESPN – he’s their big college football honk, but as the behemoth network gobbles-up more sporting events, naturally they put their staff to work on these events even if they’re clueless about the game.  Fowler is clueless.  I mean, CLUELESS.  But I digress).  Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, is waxing on Serena’s historical tennis greatness.  She is being called the greatest women’s player of all time by a lot of these talking heads. Completing a calendar Grand Slam is very difficult.  Obviously.  Only three women have ever completed a Grand Slam: American Maureen Connolly (1953), Australian Margaret Court (1970), and the German Steffi Graf (1988).  That’s pretty elite company.  Most of us tennis fans today are, of course, more familiar with Graf’s accomplishments.  She went on to win 22 majors and has been considered by most, probably, GOAT.  A pretty telling stat of her claim at GOAT, aside from her work in the majors: she was world #1 for a record 186 consecutive weeks, and a record total 377 weeks overall.  That, my friends, is consistent dominance.

As I said, the tennis world is drooling all over Serena, who, by the way, is no where near the class act that is her sister Venus.  Frankly, Serena is a jerk.  Her temper and lack of class precedes her.  She has humiliated (racially) line judges, boycotted tournaments over petty matters.  In other words, we have a kind of Barry Bonds of women’s tennis here.

Well, I’m going to make another suggestion that echoes the life and times of Barry Bonds.  What REALLY bugs me is that no one is asking a very sensible question.  How is Serena Williams on the verge of winning a Grand Slam at the age of 34?  Is the WTA field that shitty?  Is she playing in a very down market right now, an historical low-point of women’s tennis?  Because at 34, this kind of dominance does not generally work. Graf won her Grand Slam at the age of. . . wait for it. . . 19.  Connolly was about the same age, and Court was in her twenties.  But Graf is probably a better comparison.  Winning all four majors is a huge athletic achievement.  If you look at the career arc of other tennis greats (just to keep things close to home here, but you could look at the natural athletic life-span of most athletes in most sports), the “greatness” of this kind (dominating every tournament, the majors, etc.) wanes as one reaches her 30s.  Even Martina Navratilova, whom some accuse of taking PED, won her final major at the age of 31.  Just go look at the life-span of these athletes.  It’s not very difficult to see that Serena Williams is a massive outlier.  She’s playing this kind of tennis at the age of 34.  34!  And she’s untouchable.

If you had a graph (damn, that would be illustrative) to compare these players’ career arcs, you would see a problem with Serena Williams.  We all sat around watching Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and then Barry Bonds do things with the home run in baseball that defied common sense, logic and history.  That’s because those guys were juiced out of their minds on PED.  One’s athletic career doesn’t work that way; the body starts to concede to time and all of the hard work one has already put-in through out his or her career.

At 34, Serena Williams should not be playing this kind of tennis. At least ask the questions, you idiots!  The headline, as I write this line, on the obnoxious ESPN website reads “Serena Crushes Maria to Reach Wimbledon Final.”  Really?  The public made the same naive play on other drugged-up athletes in the moment, only afterwards feeling somehow shocked at the truth.

There are other factors that contribute to this argument that Serena Williams is not clean.  Her inability to stay at the top of the game (world #1) consistently throughout her career speaks to this skepticism.  She has battled injury often (like a Nadal), dominating at times and disappearing for stretches.  The true greats (Roger and Steffi) maintain a consistent dominance, defend titles, create strangleholds on their respective fields IN THEIR PRIMES. Roger is 33.  And sure enough he is struggling to win majors at this point.  Why?  Because winning five set wars with other (younger) great athletes is very difficult.  Again, not to be too controversial here, but when you age, you begin to fade.  Roger is fading.  All athletes fade in their 30s.  Except certain kinds.

Lastly, even Serena’s style gives me pause.  She sits at the baseline and literally HAMMERS her opponents with ground strokes that transcend the women’s game.  I watched her play Azarenka, a big hitter.  Serena toyed with her.  Sure she lost the first set, but the match was never in doubt.  And watching her sit there and out hit another opponent was head scratching and uninspiring.  It’s all power.  The tennis is not beautiful.  I can hear people say Yeah, but she’s had more three set battles in this run than easy, dominating wins.  How many times has she come back after losing the first set?  Watch the matches.  It’s never in doubt.  I haven’t even brought-up her odd-ball antics on the court that paint her as weird drama queen. Read between the lines, people.  At least ask the questions.  34 years-old.  In a global sports culture riddled and jeopardized by the preponderance of PED use and abuse.  Is she simply the great outlier of women’s tennis, of all time?  Explain to me how she is so dominate right now and even more, why no one is asking these questions.

14 comments

  1. Great article. What’s really suspicious is that Serena is dominating at age 33, yet struggled for several years in her 20’s. From 2004-2008, she won 2 Australian Opens and 1 US Open. All of her contemporaries (Henin, Clijsters, Hingis, Venus) are either retired or declining. Now she is nearly unbeatable. It’s ridiculous that nobody is questioning her results.

    1. Jenny, thanks for reading. I agree, at least bring it up, such as “Wow, this is incredible for someone who turns 34 in September!” You put this into perspective by listing some of her contemporaries. That’s a little alarming, if you ask me.

  2. After reading this article, I remind myself of seeing the controversial theory that Serena and Venus are indeed males who took hormone replacement therapy to dominate women’s tennis. I am not being a racist here.

    Let’s take the argument of “afro-american” players naturally have a well built physique. Let’s look at the top 5 african-american women’s tennis players . None of them has a muscular physique except serena. Taylor Townsend is an exception and she is naturally obese. Being obese is different from being muscular. The dominance shown by serena is unimaginable, it is defying aging. As you claim, people can’t compete as good as they did in their primes. 34 is neither a prime number and not a prime age in tennis. On contrary, her sister venus, whose dominance ended by 2008. (She didn’t win a singles major since 2008). Adding up to the muscular physique theory, looking at their childhood pictures, serena doesn’t look so muscular. Where did she gain the extra weight from? (Side effects of PED or Hormone replacement therapy?). After looking through these statistics, it definitely looks like something is anomalous.

    Thanks for writing this article without bothering about the “racist” comments. 🙂

    1. Good stuff, Badmarker. I think Venus has had to deal with an illness (Sjogren’s) that’s undermined her play. But your point still stands. IMHO, Serena has transcended this bullshit genetic argument.

  3. Great article.
    I personally have stopped watching women tennis after justine henin retired.
    Reason being the unwanted grunting by the likes of sharapova and others.
    The major reason is serena williams.
    When she plays it is never a woman vs woman match. It is more of a Woman vs Woman with strength of a male player.
    She completely overpowers her opponent.
    There is absolutely no skill at display. Just waiting for her and likes of sharapova to retire. Maybe after that i might start watching womens tennis again.

  4. Wow, you wield the double edged sword or racism and sexism and then act as if you’re above it. Unbelievable. You accuse a player of abuse and yetbshow no proof except that she wins. Wow. I thought training, hard work, talent, and mental fortitude led to wins. I guess that only applies to steffi in your eyes.
    Oh and if nasal had a rabid fan who knifed his main competitor with the sole aim to ensure his favorite players rise to goat…. Steffi is indeed a gear player but that Seles asterisk will always put her her goat under suspicion.
    It seems quite apparent that you can’t handle the fact that Serena is an exceptional athlete in the mold of Jordan and Ali. Not only that she has the will and mental toughness that brings her victories. You really must not watch women’s tennis at all. Her competition is great. She can lose any day of the week but what keeps her above the other players is quite simple. She doesn’t hit the hardest ( look it up), she doesn’t serve the fastest ( look it up), but she does possesses the best serve in the history of women’s tennis.
    That one weapon is the nuclear weapon that wins her matches. If you bothered to follow women’s tennis and actually watch then you would see that Maria Vila Venus Caroline and others actually battle competitively and are capable of winning and in fact lead in matches until Serena’s serve clicks and winners and aces come raining down saving her from being broken and closing out her own device games in mere minutes.
    Of course if you weren’t biased against Serena you would know this. You simply ignore what Every player and analysts know: Serena wins because of her serve and her mental fortitude.
    You call out her antics on the court but if you were a true fan of tennis then you would know she hasn’t done anything countless other players have done on court. Go to YouTube and be illuminated. It’s all on camera.
    As for her late career upswing it’s been said forever that she never took her potential seriously instead choosing to act and design and countless other distractions other than truly focus on tennis. And look when she does she’s criticized because she’s too good? Wow.
    If you want to know whoops he goat of women’s tennis ask the other greats…. They ( Everett Martina Graf McEnroe Agassi) all say Serena Williams.

    1. Thanks for reading, TL. Thanks for that fresh perspective: Serena is the GOAT. I haven’t heard that. Pretty edgy stuff, bud.

      Read my post again. First time you missed the point, second time you “found” some typos; who knows what you’ll find next. I’m still blown away by that take: she’s GOAT. Such a unique and courageous view of a 34 year old woman winning the calendar GS.

      What would you say if a 34 year old man won the calendar GS? Exactly. Good stuff, Tennis Lifer. I just hope for your sake that she makes it to the finish line all in one piece. I mean, geez, my take is so crazy. “Great” professional athletes haven’t turned our admiration upside-down, ever. And you playing the race card. STFUP. And you saying the WTA is strong in Serena’s era. You’re a genius.

      Again, thanks for reading.

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