In the battle of the sexes, the guys outrank the girls

Steffi Graf.  Monica Seles.  Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.  Martina Hingis.  Lindsay Davenport.  Even those with only a brief, passing interest in tennis around Wimbledon time will recognise some of those great champions’ names.  But what about Jelena Jankovic?  Dinara Safina?  Caroline Wozniacki?  The same fair-weather fans could be forgiven if these recent world #1s don’t exactly ring any bells.

In a recent interview with Spanish newspaper El Pais, the aforementioned Ms Sanchez Vicario commented that women’s tennis was much better in her 1990s heyday – the decade when those first five players reached the #1 ranking – than it is now.  “There was more variety, players with different games, stronger minds, more character,” she said.  “We had eight or 10 players who always had an extreme rivalry.  And to be number one, or winning a Grand Slam or two, that just didn’t come.”

Of the current crop she is less complimentary.  “Now everything is much more open.  You can be number one without being a great champion… If you ask people, they know the names of the Williams sisters or [Kim] Clijsters and [Justine] Henin, but don’t ask them to tell you the name of the [current] number one.”

She has a point if recent match attendance figures are anything to go by.  On Twitter this week, tennis journalist and commentator Guy McCrea lamented the lack of audience at the ongoing Madrid Open for current French Open champion Francesca Schiavone.  “Not even funny. Schiavone – RG champ no less – playing before 1 man and his dog on court 3 inMadrid,” he tweeted.  His hashtag placed blame on the fact that it is a combined men’s and women’s event, with the guys getting all the attention.

What he didn’t suggest in his 140 characters, though, were any possible reasons as to why this might be.  Because the sad fact is that, next to the glory and glamour of the men’s game, the current WTA tour lacks significantly in depth, drama, consistency and celebrity.

Some, mostly “serious” tennis fans, would argue that the current flatness of women’s tennis makes for a more exciting and unpredictable season, where players can rank outside the top 20 one week and beat bigger names to claiming a title the next.  You’re never quite certain who’s going to end up in each women’s final in the same way you know Nadal, Djokovic or Federer will inevitably win everything.

But what this argument ignores is the fundamental lack of match quality and technical superiority in the women’s game compared to the men’s.  The top four or five men have been ranked so highly for so long because of their skill and consistency in winning tournaments.  In contrast, the likes of Schiavone and Vera Zvonareva, currently in the top five, have been on the circuit for years and are only now reaching Grand Slam finals not because they’re getting any better, but because there is no new talent rising up to stop them.  The fact that Kim Clijsters could quit the sport, have a child, then come back two years later to win the US Open like she was having a casual knockabout in her local park is magnificent in some ways but tragic in others.

The lack of recognisable names in the women’s game is also bad for the sport in promotional terms.  There might be yet another Nadal-Djokovic final on the cards this weekend but the crowds and the TV crews will be there regardless because they know what spectacle it promises.  But on the women’s side, when the Williams sisters and Clijsters don’t show up (and all are currently injured) most people don’t have a clue who is actually playing, so the crowds and crews stay away.  Even if Madridwas a WTA-only event, I’m willing to bet Schiavone would still only be playing in front of one other man and maybe a couple more dogs.

The WTA desperately needs two or three all-conquering new stars to outshine the men.  Venus, Serena and Kim will not be around for long, and promising bright sparks Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic have quickly fizzled out and faded away.  It remains to be seen whether Caroline Wozniacki and co can become leading lights in the 2010s, but if they can’t, the girls risk being lost in the guys’ shadow for years to come.

I’ve just been watching the Madrid women’s final between Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova on television.  Along with about four people in the audience.  Maybe it’s too hot or everyone’s gone to eat lunch.  Maybe it’s that ridiculous noise Azarenka insists on making.  Or, in reality, maybe they’re all waiting for the next Nadal-Djokovic showdown later this evening.

Martin McGale

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