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May 23, 2003

Tennis Gals vs. Tennis Guys

Friedrich --

The tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams are fabulous athletes who are on track to go down as two of the greats. I'm a tennis fan who's followed the sport on and off for more than three decades, and who, for the last decade, has largely stopped watching men's tennis -- too bam-bam boring. Ah, women's tennis: drama, personality, strategy, frequent long rallies -- tennis as it once was, not some flash-cutting stunt circus. Its own game, with its own qualities, and not just a pale imitation of the men's game. And closer to what I think of as "tennis."

But Venus and Serena have introduced a level of power and athleticism into the women's game that seems to approach what the guys routinely display. And, to be honest, I don't know how I feel about that. I worry as I watch them mow down one opponent after another. On the one hand: gosh and golly, what they do is amazing! On the other: gee, I'd hate to see the women's game go the way of the men's. I like the stuffy old back and forth of traditional tennis.

So I've often found myself wondering: how close to the power level of the men are Venus and Serena anyway? I've never known, at least not until this morning, when I found the answer in an article by Allen St. John in the Wall Street Journal (not available online).

Here's how it goes. The women pros often train by playing or rallying with guy players. Which guy players? And how well do the women do against them? It turns out that these practice-session guys are usually top-level college players or low-ranking pros. It also turns out that these guys can more than hold their own against the tippy-toppiest women. St. John gives an example:

In 1998 Serena jokingly challenged Karsten Braasch of Germany, then-ranked No. 200. Until that time, the pack-a-day smoker was best known as the impetus for the ban on smoking during changeovers. The match, played on a practice court with little fanfare, wasn't close. Mr. Brasch beat Serena 6-1, then turned around and beat Venus 6-2.

Apparently the big factors in the diffs between the men and the women are foot speed (the men can run down a lot more shots than the women can), and the amount of topspin that can be generated (the men seem to be able to put as much as 50% more spin on the ball than even the strongest women).

I'm breathing more easily thanks to St. John's article. It looks like the women's game won't go the way of the boom-boom men's game for a few years yet.

Hey, the French Open -- my favorite of the big tournaments because it's on clay, which slows the game down -- starts in a couple of days. The official website is here.



posted by Michael at May 23, 2003


Back in 1976, Evonne Goolagong played a set against Ilie Nastase, but Nastase had to cover the doubles court (handicapping his foot speed) and only got one serve (handicapping his power). Goolagong won 7-5.

But I agree generally about men's tennis---the composition rackets have given hard hitters even more power, and its made Wimbledon especially a yawn. Bud Collins is a big proponent of bringing back wood rackets for men---like they require major league baseball players to hit with wood bats, instead of metal that they permit in college, in order to not just make it a slugfest. The spin and cunning of a player like McEnroe wouldn't get traction today due purely to the power of the equipment. (By the way, McEnroe---today, so at 45 or 46, not his prime, played mixed doubles against Venus Williams and got flat-out aced several times. Maybe her overall power can't match the men's, but the mph speed of her serve matches a lot of men on tour).

Posted by: annette on May 23, 2003 12:03 PM

It's funny, isn't it? You'd think that upper-body strength would be one of the big diffs between the women and the men. But Venus and Serena serve as hard and fast as many of the men. And I wouldn't have thought footspeed was dramatically different -- one of the most striking things about the sisters is how great they are at running balls down. But apparently that is one of the big diffs. The guys are even better at running balls down than Venus and Serena are, and apparently pretty dramatically so. And who knew about topspin? I was always pretty darned impressed by the spin Venus and Serena put on the ball.

I'd love to see everyone go back to wooden rackets too, and for some rule to be put in place limiting the size of the racket head. The men's game has become too absurd. I read somewhere -- in Tennis magazine a few years ago? -- about a tournament (or a couple of tournaments? middle-aged Alzheimer's at work here), very amateur-level, that require wooden rackets. But I read somewhere else that no one makes them anymore. So I'm left wondering where those wooden-racket cultists find their rackets. It isn't as though wooden rackets last for decades...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 23, 2003 1:05 PM

The French is your favorite, eh? I'm betting you just like to see Venus and Serena with that red clay dust all over them. Or maybe that's just me.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on May 23, 2003 1:46 PM

Gals, thighs, sweat and dirt -- it just works somehow, doesn't it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 23, 2003 1:49 PM

Do you guys EVER get your mind out of the gutter? ;o)

Posted by: Deb on May 23, 2003 2:06 PM

Do any?

Posted by: David Mercer on May 27, 2003 2:11 PM

What gutter?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 27, 2003 5:20 PM

Oh wait, mine flowed into the sewer years ago!

Posted by: David Mercer on May 27, 2003 6:07 PM

If you two weren't so cute, you'd get slapped. Boys!

Posted by: Deb on May 27, 2003 6:39 PM

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