If you are a female and you want to be a championship tennis player, I have piece of advice for you. Start lifting weights. Now, I’m not some super tennis fan. I do not know the rules very well, do not know how tennis players train, and would certainly embarrass myself with a tennis racket. But, after casually flipping through the channels the other day I learned a whole lot about female tennis when I settled on the Australian Open women’s final and watched a somewhat bulky Serena Williams make short work of her spindly Russian opponent. How did she do it? Williams simply muscled her opponent off the court.
It was actually pretty awesome to watch. Williams’s opponent was a slim young Russian girl, and I think the announcers mentioned she was the number one in the world. But Williams’s size and power clearly intimidated her. The American was bigger stronger, and her fitness clearly trumped whatever skill the Russian had.
Last night I went on the internet and checked out a few mainstream sports articles to see what the pundits had to say about the match and the usual meaningless sports clichés popped up. “Williams had skill and desire. She has the will to win.” Etc… No one seemed to mention the obvious, that Williams had a clear advantage in weight and muscle. Some recently archived stories on ESPN laughably pointed out that Serena Williams was out of shape and was unlikely to go far in the tournament. Out of shape? Sure, her body fat percentage might be higher than that of some skinny pony tail in a skirt. But does that really matter when her shoulders are twice as wide and her arms ripple with muscle?
Look, female tennis is no marathon. Unlike championship men’s tennis, women’s tournament matches are two sets and out; there is little chance that a championship match can actually drag for hours on end. The premium here is not on distance running, where Williams’s bulk puts her at a disadvantage, but on skill, wiles, and power. There seems to be little of the later attribute on the women’s tour, which explains why the female professionals can afford to skip the body building and work more on their finesse game.
When someone like Serena Williams comes along and combines muscle with skill, the other women on the tour are helpless. They can only hope that she defeats herself by hitting the ball into the net or out of bounds. Otherwise, they will simply be overpowered.
The obvious follow up question is, why don’t the other players on the women’s tour follow Serena’s lead and bulk up? The extra strength would give any player an instant advantage over the will o’wisps of the tour, potentially turning the fair players into good players and the good players into great players.
I think the answer is vanity. Many of the good female players, especially the Russians, are scrutinized for their looks. The so-called pretty players are more marketable, and in order to stay “good looking” they have to stay slim and force their bodies to fulfill the contradictory roles of being both models and an athletes.
The players that are able to pull off being slim and winning at championship tennis are almost certainly highly skilled, but they are also powerless waifs. Luckily for them, the women’s tennis tour has few really strong women in the running, so a lack of power is not a real handicap. But, when someone does come in with the skill and the brawn to back it up, the playing field immediately falls in this uberwoman's wake like so many fragile twigs.
Women’s tennis is long overdue for a revolution in training that places a premium on muscle fitness. The bodybuilding revolution that occurred in men’s athletics during the late 80’s and nineties greatly improved athleticism in tennis and basketball. But, sadly I think that there are too many body image hang-ups that prevent mainstream female athletes from bulking up. That’s too bad because the women’s game would only benefit from an increase of speed and power, and the stronger brawnier female players could serve as the perfect foils for a society that stupidly equates feminine health and fitness with skinniness.