Golden age of women’s tennis demands more respect – Iga Swiatek, Naomi Osaka and others deserve that
Tennis has found itself on the right side of history more than not: after Althea Gibson broke the colour barrier at the French Open in 1952 (upending decades of vile “tradition” at white-only clubs in the process), Arthur Ashe used his Grand Slam-winning platform to lead the call to end apartheid, and the sport’s relative embrace of gay and trans athletes in the ‘70s and ‘80s put it well ahead of the rest of the sporting world still grappling with race, identity and sexuality.
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You only need to be a casual viewer to start to absorb the tennis world’s conventional wisdom that women’s matches are usually called by women and men – and occasionally women only – but the gender divide is most rigid for men’s matches. Finding a non-male voice in the booth for a men’s match for play-by-play, colour commentary or desk analysis is a tough errand, and it highlights the need to make better efforts at diversifying the tennis press corps, in every way imaginable.
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Pam Shriver, one of the livelier commentators on rival network ESPN, captured the back and forth and used the clip to prompt a Twitter discussion about the dated characterisation of women’s tennis, to which user @BAHdeDAH replied: “Is there a ‘Plan B’ for this kind of reporting?”
The term “Big Babe Tennis” was coined by Mary Carillo in the 1990s to describe the baseline-centric, groundstroke-heavy game embodied by players such as Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters, among others. At the time, it represented a shift away from the craftier all-court style played by Martina Hingis and her namesake, Martina Navratilova. It was – like many of Carillo’s bon mots – a perfect summation of the era. It was also the 1990s.
We’re now in a golden age of women’s tennis, with legends still sticking around to compete for that one last trophy or use their platform to push for good, but also featuring an entirely new crop of faces with games as varied as their personalities. The fact that 13 different women have won Grand Slams in the past five years is usually used as a ding on the women’s game, as if dominance and a nearly predetermined outcome are as exciting to spectators as witnessing a first (or in some cases, an only) moment of Grand-Slam glory.
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Anyone following junior tennis saw Swiatek coming from miles away — she won titles at junior Wimbledon, Roland Garros and the Fed Cup before turning pro in 2019. But it was the style in which she ran to the title, dropping fewer than five games in any match and deploying the variety of Barty, the grind of a Halep and the artillery of a Sabalenka or Osaka with a giant smile on her face made anyone watching want to spread the word.
Tennis resonates among a mixed generation, mixed gender and global audience because of the variety of how it is played and the personalities and styles of the people who play it. And it deserves the historical context and contemporary commentary that explains it and invites new audiences in. Lucky for tennis, that while the dusty commentariat gets its house in order, we’ll have players such as Swiatek to make the case.
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