Women's Tennis: When Even Double-Standards Aren't Enough

Last week, a reader wrote in drawing our attention to the New York Times' cinematic "Women Who Hit Hard" video/gallery, asking, "is it really necessary to back-light their photographs so their unsecured hair flips around, and their heavily-made-up faces shine?"

As Louisa Thomas writes on the Paris Review's blog, "It's a weird moment for women's tennis. Not bad, but weird." Beyond the bevy of injuries that have befallen many stars of women's tennis (leading McEnroe, infamously, to call for a lighter schedule) we have some tensions. Not just between male-versus-female tennis players, as McEnroe's ham-fisted comments would suggest, but between our ideals of what the modern female tennis player "is."

For a few years now, there's been a cultural binary in place: sex-kittens versus amazons. Now, it seems, we're combining the two: strong is sexy. On the one hand, great. On the other...well, yes. The opposition is pretty well-illustrated by this Times description of "the diminutive" Belgian Justine Henin:

In Henin, the line between an expression of vulnerability and a devouring stare of slightly sour competitiveness can be fuzzy. Venus and Serena Williams, the game's longtime dominant sisters, tend to look more abstracted, in a world closed onto themselves. Until they're threatened. Then the array of weapons - the fist pumps, the drive to win, the sheer, overwhelming athleticism - emerge. Henin, "the sister of no mercy," as she is called, is a more elegant player but no less unrelentingly obsessed with crushing her opponents.

The fact that all professional athletes are, presumably, focused on the goal of winning never seems to be raised. People don't know how to approach women's tennis. On the one hand, it's a sport women have always played - often in "mixed doubles." People wear skirts. It can be refined. And yet, the "athletics-versus-sex" debate rears its head every summer, inexorably. Never mind that, in the words of The Week, "If you look at the tennis greats, the women often play longer and harder than men." Ferocity is always invoked as anomalous, martial language used, double-entendres employed. McEnroe's words, which ESPN's Johnette Howard dismisses as untroubled by "nuisances like fact," can be dismissed as the ravings of an ass, or refuted, but none of that will change the reality of a fundamental ambivalence that rears its head, with slight variations, every summer.


How Power Has Transformed Women's Tennis
[NY Times]
Rooting For Muscles [Paris Review]
Should Women Tennis Players Be Treated Differently?
[The Week]
Not Again: Mac's Prattle Of The Sexes [ESPN]