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Standing up to be counted

Yesterday afternoon I watched on television as Serena Williams, who is going to be 35 in September, lost 5-7, 4-6 to first-time Major winner Garbine Muguruza (formerly of Venezuela, now of Spain) in the final of the women’s singles at the French Open.

Serena therefore remains on a career record of 21 Grand Slam singles titles – one behind Steffie Graff and two behind the great Aussie Margaret Court – to go with her 36 Grand Slam titles in all (fifth in the all-time list and second in the Open era). She has grossed tennis prize money of US$76.5 million, fourth in the all-time list for both genders, first amongst women.

Some people seem to withhold respect and acclaim from Serena and her older sister Venus (who’ll 36 this June, with a career record of 7 Grand Slam singles victories and 22 Grand Slam titles in all) because they feel that their sheer genetic size, strength and power has given them an unfair advantage over other elite female tennis players. There’s a degree to which, certainly during the peak of their careers, there was a natural expectation that if either or both the Williams sisters were in a tournament draw – and fit, of course – there was an inevitability that they’d feature in the quarter-finals or beyond simply because the majority of their opponents were going to be smaller, weaker and less endowed with stamina.

Such criticism was unwarranted. Athletes exploiting – or being taught to exploit – their natural physical advantages has been part of top sport ever since the concept of sporting competition was first conceived.

Let’s face it – entire sports have been built around the theme (think basketball, a perfect repository for tall, rangy people with outstanding coordination and ball skills) but it goes further than that.

In soccer, people who can run fast tend to play up front and/or on the wings, those who are tall tend to play in central defence. In rugby the fat, squat blokes play in the front row and the slim, agile, elusive guys tend to occupy the threequarter positions.

welchGenerally gymnastic disciplines tend to favour small, flexible people of both genders possessed of a favourable power-to-weight ratio.

However, and this is a topic that has featured previously in the Rust, there is another dimension to this issue when it comes to female sport.

The fact is that – especially in the modern era in which sports science, nutrition and training methods are not only light years ahead of what passed for then 75 years ago but are taking the human body close to the maximum of what is physiologically possible – sporting excellence depends more and more upon size and strength than it does upon straightforward natural ability.

Long ago this gave rise to the time-honoured boxing saying “A good big ‘un will always beat a good little ‘un”. That said, (this the embodiment of the ‘exception that proves the rule’ theory) history has occasionally and happily thrown up examples of less physically-endowed competitors who have prevailed over bigger and stronger opponents by means of cute tactics, guile, exceptional effort, the seizing of an unexpected opportunity or even out-and-out random good fortune.

In general, however, when it comes to female sport – and I’m aware that in going down this line I risk leaving myself wide-open to accusations of prehistoric attitudes and politically-incorrectness – the more ‘masculine’ the individual [obviously I’m referring here to bigger size, strength, power, stamina and bulk] the more likely they are to succeed simply because these attributes tend to assist excellence in terms, e.g. in terms of reaching the finishing tape first, or propelling the javelin the furthest distance.

Katarina Witt

Katarina Witt

Perhaps I’m old-fashioned but for me (trying my best to refrain from sexism) the joys of watching female sport tend to spring not from the fact that some giant Amazon can fling a shot putt nearly as far as an elite man, but from seeing exceptional natural talent, honed to perfection, being displayed by an individual who is lady-like and feminine in both her looks and movements.

[Please help me here – I’m thinking of the likes of Katarina Witt, the ice dancer; tennis players Maria Bueno, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, Gabriela Sabatini and Justine Henin-Hardene; gymnasts Nadia Comãneci and Olga Korbut; track and field athlete Cathy Freeman … and so on].

This especially applies to the sport of tennis – or at least, it does in Britain (which to its detriment probably is far too centred around the annual Wimbledon tournament).

In my experience the bulk of female spectators – in stereotypical terms the stay-at-home, middle-aged, middle class, mothers looking on fortified by cucumber sandwiches, cups of tea and strawberries and ice cream – tend to be drawn towards the more ‘emotionally delicate’ female competitors such as (in the past) Mary Pierce of France and Jana Novotná of Czechoslovakia, or watson(currently) the English player Heather Watson … who seem programmed to be incapable of playing tennis without suffering extremes of joy, pain, frustration, periods of inexplicable loss of concentration and potentially even tears somewhere along the line.

The explanation for this, it seems to me, is that female tennis fans – and indeed female sports fans generally – are more attracted to the female participants they think they personally can relate to … rather than those who in contrast are built like men, play like men and sometimes even look like men.

In ending by circling back to the original subject of my piece today, I am in no way suggesting that Serena Williams is built like a man or indeed looks like one.

Nevertheless, the fact is that some of those who have withheld devotion from their appreciation of what Serena has achieved in the sport of tennis do so because they feel that the Williams sisters, who have both played their part in taking elite women’s tennis to another level, have done so specifically because they feel that their physiques and determination gave them a fundamental advantage over opponents who possessed equal or even superior natural technique and skill.

What I would like to say in defence of both Williams sisters – especially Serena –  however is that nobody can deny the extraordinary nature of their rise from obscurity under the tutelage of their father Richard Williams to a certain domination of the world of women’s tennis. Their natural skill – and the endless hours of practice they undertook – cannot be denied or fail to be admired. Nor can their innate competitiveness, determination and inner strength.

As with the life and career of Muhammad Ali – of which we’re hearing so much at the moment – neither sister has been unfailingly perfect. In the past Serena has had more than her share of controversial moments, on and off the court.

serena2However, I would say this. In the last couple of years, as – now on the wrong side of thirty – Serena has been finding it harder and harder to reach the later stages of the big tournaments, let alone win them, I have never seen her give of less than her utmost, even when she has been suffering from nagging injuries or temporarily illness.

Furthermore, when she loses, in interviews she never takes the easy route of giving excuses, e.g. blaming an injury or indisposition. Instead she invariably congratulates and praises her victorious opponent with a grace that could not possibly be faked or insincere.

She knows how to win, but – better than that – she also knows how to lose. That’s a sign of real class indeed, some might say, greatness.


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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