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Aspects of elite women’s sport

Later today at some point – I get confused as to time zones and how many hours Australia is ahead of the UK – Serena Williams takes part in the Women’s Final at the Australian Open as (the last time I looked) the 1/5 on favourite. If she wins Serena will equal Steffi Graf’s record of 22 Grand Slam titles. Yesterday Sue Barker sat on the BBC1’s breakfast time show sofa and described her as the greatest-ever female tennis player. She may well be correct because it is difficult to argue otherwise.

But you know what? It is perhaps non-PC for a man to say it, but a large factor in Serena’s success is that Serena is more like a man, i.e. bigger and stronger, than most other girls. For the past fifteen years she has been able to blow 70% of her women’s pro tour competitors off the court by sheer power. Okay, she also possesses the other attributes required of great champions, not least desire and ambition, but the Australian Open is effectively her first proper tournament outing since last September. No man could come back after that big a lay-off to dominate a Grand Slam event in such circumstances. She’s also 34, now well into the veteran stage for a female tennis player. The best that the two ‘generations’ of women behind her in the pro game can hope for is that – at some point – she’s going to get a bad injury, or just get bored with the grind of it all, and retire. Until that day dawns, for as long as she wishes, she is always going to be a contender.

As hinted above, this state of affairs would rarely – I hesitate to say never – happen in men’s tennis because, as night follows day, there is always some talented new kid on the block breaking through who is bigger, faster and stronger than those who went before.

This subject came to my mind earlier today when I came upon an article by Robert Kitson in The Guardian on the plight of the impending women’s Six Nations rugby tournament. England, France and Ireland have switched some of their best players to ‘sevens only’ contracts in the hope that this will lead to medal glory at this years’ Rio Olympics.


It seems to me that some of these dilemmas highlight the problem facing women’s sport generally. I’m not referring here to the significant advances that have occurred in the past decade generally for female sporting activity – and yes, though some of us may bitch about the ‘extreme’ (politically-correct) policies of broadcasters to ‘big up’ female sport as if to mirror the all-consuming popularity of its men’s equivalent, it is a fact that increased media coverage has contributed to the phenomenon – but to the incongruous nature of the physiology of the female gender when it comes to what it takes to excel at an elite level.

All this is taking place, of course, against the background of the Western World’s struggle with its growing issues regarding health, obesity and the general lack of female participation in physical activity, on which (surely) any initiative to stem the tide and increase both healthy eating and aerobic exercise must be applauded.

It occurs to me that the problems facing women’s rugby have a parallel in women’s cricket.

cricketLast summer – like many other first-time male viewers – I watched the television coverage the Women’s Ashes series out of passing interest, with its mix of One Day, T20 and Test matches. As a tournament structure, it seemed to work okay but the worrying aspect was the Test Match part of it.

Whatever your sex, whenever you’re contemplating elite international cricket it is natural to think in terms of a Test Match because that is the ultimate version of the game. But the women’s Ashes Test match I watched last year simply served to highlight the problem with women’s cricket. To say that the longest form of the game suits the attributes that women can bring to it was not just stretching things, it was patently out-and-out poppycock.

Viewing last summer’s Ashes Test Match live was akin to watching a slow-motion car crash. The people I pitied most were the male commentators and pundits who had drawn the short straw and been assigned to cover it. Trying to talk about what was unfolding on the field of play in similar terms as they’d use for a men’s Test Match must have been a surreal and unworldly experience, the equivalent of (as a form of spoof television ‘panel game’) being required to describe the flow of a Brownies’ game of rounders as if it was the deciding game in a baseball World Series final. I’m wrestling with my instincts and rules of politeness here, but the cricket being presented to the viewers at home as ‘elite sport’ was de facto pathetic. This viewer, and probably many like him, could not fail to form the view that women and cricket Test Matches don’t mix. I suspect the game’s authorities already knew this, which is why they scheduled only one Test Match in the Ashes series.

rugby2The same seems to be happening to women’s rugby. ‘They’ – the authorities – have correctly identified the inherent dangers in the 7s version of the game.

It’s far more open, there’s more action, it’s more entertaining that the 15-a-side game and there might be Olympic medals to be won. In overall terms, it is both a plus and a minus. But then again, what’s not to like, especially when it may help with the hoped-for global explosion of women’s rugby?

Although I actually enjoy watching women’s international 15-a-side rugby when I see it, there is sadly a degree to which the fascination is not in that it’s being played particularly well, but in the novelty factor that its being played (by women) at all.

Which brings us back to the ultimate issues surrounding women and elite sport.

In returning to the subject, I wish to ‘row back’ a bit. It is too simplistic to suggest that male-like qualities (‘strength, size and power’) are the key, indeed only, things that matter in elite women’s sport.

jessicaTake Jessica Ennis-Hill, for example. She’s only five feet five and nine stone, but she’s the reigning world and Olympic heptathlon champion. She’s achieved that competing against fellow athletes far bigger and stronger than herself. Even her up-and-coming young GB pretender Katarina Johnson-Thompson is seven inches taller and two stone heavier.

However, maybe someone like Ennis-Hill is the exception that proves the rule.

The fact is that whenever sports and team games favour those with traditional male attributes like power and dynamism, the women’s version suffers in terms of publicity and popularity amongst viewers – and this applies for spectators of both genders.

Let us go back to tennis once more. As much as with any sport, the proportion of avid tennis spectators who are female is large, possibly even as high as 50:50 of the whole.

I’m guilty of a monstrous generalisation and presumption here, but (as I see it) they enjoy watching men’s tennis because of the strength, power and dynamism of the male players – let us leave the sex appeal aspect of it to one side for the time being – but, just as much, they also enjoy watching women’s tennis and for slightly different reasons.

Whilst they accept and admire the (big, powerful and dynamic) Serena Williams’s and Petra Kvitovás of the world – for their determination, their focus and, of course, their tournament victories – in equal (or possibly greater) measure they also enjoy the matches featuring the more delicate, graceful and – dare I venture to say it – more ‘feminine’ of the female players, even if – in reality – they’re never going to be quarter-finalist or better contenders to take the title. Those who wear their emotions on their sleeve; who get upset when either the play or the line calls do not go their way; who ‘crumble’ under pressure and/or endure endless ‘crises’ of momentum and get disturbed by little diversions.

Think Steffi Graf, Maria Bueno, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, Justine Henin, Gabriela Sabatini – even Suzanne Lenglen or Mary Pierce. Or indeed any young up-and-coming plucky Brit doomed to eventual defeat in rounds one or two of Wimbledon. For female spectators, as often as not, the joy of watching tennis is the chance to watch someone on a great sporting stage who they can identify with – someone like themselves. And not too many of them a granite-hard, out-and-out, competitors seemingly determined to win at any cost, as sometimes great champions have to be.


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About Tom Hollingworth

Tom Hollingsworth is a former deputy sports editor of the Daily Express. For many years he worked in a sports agency, representing mainly football players and motor racing drivers. Tom holds a private pilot’s licence and flying is his principal recreation. More Posts