Sunday, January 28, 2007

How to Win at Women's Tennis

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.


hcduvall said...

I think you might be a too late on this one. The last mostly finesse player that was dominant was Martina Hingis, and her era ended with the emergence of the Williams sisters, Lindsey Davenport, and the ilk who were, compartively, power players. And those players did overpower everyone else, until distraction or injury took them away, and the sort of player you're talking about emerged...the one who mixed better power and better skill.

The storyline that reporters have taken with this match is Serena Williams's skill and desire this time because she been not played competatively for a while, and she typically isn't this consistent (has many more errors). In the men's game, Andy Roddick's fitness and power (150mph serves and all that) doesn't match up to Federer's better balance of the power with skill. Strangely enough, the player most like what you're looking for is actually Maria Sharapova, the loser of this particular match. The purely power player's period has passed, and the ones who don't sacrifice skill and consistency to it are the ones who are going to win. Sharapova is the weird sort of creature that also has complete control of her media image as well, having absorbed the Kournikova example and grown from it.

Wider image issues aside, I don't think any top player sacrifices time to that--in a way that we can't see a consumarate drop in skill and overall fitness. There's a lack of depth in the field of women's tennis, so the disparities of skill and power are more obvious, but these two are not the ones to argue this with, I think.

Chengora said...

One note struck me as out of place in your post, Jonny. As I understand it (from my alma mater's former student president, for those of you who know him), women's matches are two sets because they were expected to be based on rallies and were, in that regard, supposed to be marathons. Men's matches were serve and volley affairs. The drag-out battles could (and did) happen in women's tennis, and indeed, they were expected to, which requires a better balance of bulk, power, and endurance.

Now, a lot of that has changed as the game has evolved, but I think the big question is why, given the rules of the game, did it move away from that framework.

hcduvall said...

The same reasoning that has Wimbledon keeping the tradition that men's games payouts are larger than womens, despite the fact that the women's draw has been stronger for years (if you want to bring in economics), they don't want to.

Well, I think that's mostly it. But connected to what I said above, the drop off after the top players who could handle a longer effectively (and entertainingly) is steep.

wx said...

This is definitely a case of not doing enough homework before going off half-cocked. What is being overlooked here are the demands of conditioning that are specific to tennis; namely, that flexibility and agility are far more important than raw strength (which itself can be trumped by superior technique). The more muscle mass you have, the less flexible you are and the greater chance of experiencing a cramp or pull on the court, which is absolutely debilitating during a match, and you can't just call a time-out (well, you can, but the fans will immediately start whistling and booing and if you can't recover in time, you forfeit). And make no mistake--this is a dehydrating, physically and mentally exhausting game (imagine a 2/half hour duel). Not a marathon? The WTA tour consists of over 60 tournaments a year of which top players attend around 35-40, each lasting about a week. You have to stay healthy all-year round.
It's a legitimate grind, and too much mass can whittle you down by summertime. Years and years ago I wondered why so many women's tennis players had such perfectly sculpted legs, even if some had ripped arms and shoulders that had you thinking of gender reassignment surgery. (None of which, I might add, have had the success of the Williams sisters, though just as buff.) Then I realized that many of the men also had slim, tapered legs, with very few bulky calf muscles. Even those most muscular of athletes, pro (American) football players, practice similar body shaping, specifically wide recievers and cornerbacks; they bulk up enough to take hits and fight off their opposite number, but keep their legs lean and don't add weight that would put unnecessary wear on their ankles and knees. In a game like tennis where there is constant running, turning, pivoting, and lunging, it is utterly vital to keep limber and fluid. This is why many female tennis players peak before their twentieth birthday, which has led marketing to focus on the nubiles.
As mentioned above, when the Williams sisters debuted, they blew away the competition--for four years. Then they both succumbed to long series of leg and knee issues which has kept them in and out of the spotlight for years. This match you watched was about an embattled, almost-forgotten former champ making a big comeback against the one who supplanted her (current lifetime record: Williams 3, Sharapova 2). The power game has its merits, but it is high-risk, and as often as it wins it loses to a finesse player, like current world #2 and former #1 Justine Henin, a tiny but completely uncute Belgian who has consistently beat far stronger players for years with guile and hustle. This is one of the great appeals of tennis: there is no best way to win. Yes, Venus and Serena were huge power hitters, but they dominated because they were also extremely fast, and possibly most important were extraordinarily competitive. When healthy, they have remained fast and strong, but their immense popularity and accompanying marketing hype--despite being rippling with muscle--ended up distracting them from tennis. Winning brings endorsements; the collision of sex appeal/top ranking happens very, very rarely. It just so happens we are in a "Golden Age" of marketably attractive/highly ranked Western Europeans right now. Maria Sharapova is world #1 because of a well-balanced game and because she's the most fiery competitor on the WTA tour. She doesn't win Grand Slam events because she's a hot blonde Russian (but *both* are why she's the richest female athlete in the world).
To echo the ever-wise hcduvall, your post is also a little behind on body image. I have noticed a marked trend in recent years towards Athlete Chic: where strong, lean, athletic bodies are replacing the stick-thins and beef/cheesecake of the nineties and before. I believe this is largely due to sports in the global communications era, where in America we can now access multiple 24/7 channels of all-sports (a very recent invention), and where the international audience of famous athletes becomes ever more vast.
If so, tennis is very much a leader in that respect. It's both a men's and women's game, an individual sport, it's truly international (look at the flags on the top ten rankings of any year), and is huge in wealthy, media-savvy western nations like the US, France, and England. (Really, is it reasonable to think pro tour players in such an atmosphere can't/won't get the cutting edge of conditioning training? Answer: they do. That's why so many eventually emigrate to the States.) Both men's and women's tennis have had, for nearly twenty years, quite a panoply of body types and playing styles, all of which have fallen in and out of chic. Watch more tennis--it's an interesting game to follow.

Anyway, I found your post, um, provocative enough that I just had to write in. Thanks!

Jonny America said...

Sorry all. My apartment search and general uprootedness has kept me from giving the full mea culpa that this post truely deserves. Duvall and wx made some pretty good points that I need to follow up on. But... despite my seemingly untimed aim at Sharapova's muscle fitness and whatnot, I still stand by my original arguement. I think that female tennis could handle a serious injection of muscle.

Admittedly, I confused the issue and overstressed the linkage of muscle fitness with the power game. Clearly muscle is not a prerequisite for power as the careers of Devenport and Sharapova prove-- both are power players, but neither are musclebound.

Certain areas where I certainly need to disagree with my critics include: the muscle mass=lack of agility arguements; weight training versus the tennis schedule; small legs on the men's tour (check out Federer's).

Hopefully, I'll be able to weigh in with more detail before long.

HoBs said...

A relevent nytimes article today

Jonny America said...

Well, it looks like I’ve been exposed, both about my characterization of the women’s tennis field as full of skilled but powerless players, and also about my mention of women’s tennis as a non-marathon. But I think I’ll run with Duvall’s well-taken point about the untimeliness of my post in the face of an upsurge of prominent women’s power players. There have been quite a few successful women’s power players over the last few years, including a bunch of Americans, Lindsay Davenport, Venus and Serena Williams, and even the Russian Sharapova who I criticized for being outmuscled in my original post.

Nevertheless, I would argue that power you see from the women in this list, with the clear exception of Serena Williams, derives not from an attention to fitness, but to size and skill level. In the case of Davenport, she is just physically bigger than the other players. She’s taller, broader, and has a longer reach. I don’t know where Sharapova’s power comes from. I guess she’s somewhat tall. She doesn’t have wide shoulders. I suspect that her power in hitting the ball is somewhat skill based, with correct wrist movements or however tennis people are taught to hit the ball harder. What she clearly isn’t served by, is a muscular frame. Sure it’s hard to keep 20 pounds of extra muscle when you’re always traveling and running around the court, but it isn’t impossible. Can you actually deny that the extra muscle wouldn’t help her out? If her frame was padded enough to take and deliver everything that Serena’s could, would she have been blown out in the Australian championship? I think not.

Yeah, power is not everything in women’s tennis, but there is no doubt that all the players could be helped with a little more. Putting on 10-20 pounds of muscle won’t hurt anyone, and it is clear that with a few exceptions, many of the players are not willing to put in the one hour of gym time to get it done.