London ~~ 6 July 2008
Another Wimbledon, another year of ill-suppressed sexism
By Sarah Sands
On a hot Friday afternoon, I watched the men's semi-finals at Wimbledon. Marat Safin swerved from sublime confidence to Chekhovian despair in the match against Roger Federer.
Safin hurled his racket at his foot and at the chair, though his usual trick is to shatter it against the sole of his shoe. When things go well, he pulls down his pants, a particularly male form of genius: attention seeking, egotistical, breathtaking. Federer is cooler headed and more ruthlessly competitive. The better Safin played, the more Federer raised his game. The men were serving at 130mph and rallying with superb athleticism.
Then Rafael Nadal came dancing on to play Rainer Schüttler. More muscular energy and dazzling strength and range. Sure enough, as we filed exhilarated out of the court, there were mutters about the anticlimax of the women's final the following day.
The theme of men's vs women's tennis is age old. Only the terms of abuse have changed. Justin Gimelstob, a former mixed-doubles champion who sits on the board of the Association of Tennis Professionals, said last week that women's tennis had improved: "There are fewer lesbians now because they're all Russian chicks. And there's some other cute ones out there." He specifically recommended the "well developed" Nicole Vaidisova and the "sexpot" French players Tatiana Golovin and Alizé Cornet.
Gimelstob might have got away with it, were it not for his strangely expressed fantasy of serving balls into the stomach of Anna Kournikova and having his "stud brother ... nail her" in bed. As it was, he issued a gloriously corporate apology, talking of taking responsibility "for the words that came out of my mouth", as if they might have found an alternative orifice.
A milder version of Gimelstob's sentiments is mainstream public opinion. The urgent topics of debate about the female players this year have included Maria Sharapova's tuxedo jacket and shorts. I found my 16-year-old son transfixed by coverage of a women's match and asked if it was exciting. "Yeah, yeah, good," he nodded appreciatively. "Ana Ivanovic is really hot."
Of course those on the inside know now not to exhibit overt sexism. Pat Cash, who once described women's tennis as "two sets of rubbish that lasts only half an hour", gave a respectful talk about the players to watch on Friday without making any gender distinctions. Buster Mottram is seeking rehabilitation for his bracing opinion that women tennis players were too butch by making a programme about female tennis stars.
The bizarre response towards female tennis players is a heightened form of the quiet misogyny of public life. Women are applauded for being "hot" in a slightly menacing way, and derided for being serious. The winners are viewed with a kind of paranoia. I Googled the Williams sisters and found readers' comments caught up with speculation about steroid abuse.
After admiring a 132mph serve by Safin at Wimbledon, I asked my neighbour how fast women could serve. He smiled sympathetically and said they could not get above 80mph.
Venus Williams has a recorded serve of 127mph. The magnificence of Venus is that she rises above it. Asked about Gimelstob's remarks she shrugged, "Yeah, I heard about them."
Some commentators and players will never accept the validity of women's tennis. The Williams sisters, like many women, have to prove themselves again and again and again.
And the Williams sisters DID prove themselves again in 2008
Easily beating all-comers before playing a superb singles final
And easily taking the doubles title to boot!
London ~~ Monday July 7 2008
Sisters flout school codes to serve up a final of vigour and quality
Venus and Serena Williams defied the sceptics by producing a match of real quality. (©Getty images / R. Pierse)
If you don't play by the rules, the school is unlikely to sing your praises. The Williams sisters have been doing it for themselves ever since dad Richard handed them rackets and the starchy School of Tennis has never known either what to make of them or how to treat them.
Most of the time, you sense, it wishes they would just go away even if this would have meant the climax of the girls sports day would have been 133rd-ranked Zheng Jie against Miss Flake, Elena Dementieva, rather than a fine match played in difficult conditions between two of the greatest women players of all time.
Of course, there was a time when it looked as if the sisters might leave the school of their own accord and pursue careers in fashion and acting but a bonus of only attending significant school events (who cares who wins in Doha?) is that you prolong your career. The Belgians may burn out and fade away, the Williams sisters keep on rolling along. Through gnashed teeth they have to be complimented for their longevity.
Adding stickability to their many talents has enabled them to rack up some extraordinary statistics. They have won as many Wimbledon singles titles as Pete Sampras and finished runner up four more times than him. They now have 15 grand slams between them.
This is a staggering achievement, particularly when you consider the odds stacked against them, the scale of their challenge perfectly illustrated yesterday by there being more black faces in the players' guest box than in the rest of the crowd.
Yet again, the school prefects put the word round that the match would be decided over the breakfast table. This allegation, scarcely credible, being bandied around when the School of Tennis has a problem with fixed matches. The prefects had failed to appreciate that just because the sisters had fulfilled their shared primary objective they wouldn't strive in their opposed secondary objectives.
Serena was quickest into her stride, thumping the ball into the corners. Her power can hide her finesse, the magnificence of her game is not how hard she hits but how accurately. It was tennis of the highest quality and far better than anything which had preceded it in the tournament.
When Venus was in danger of going 4-1 behind she didn't apologise for a net cord. It would only be insincere and for all their giggling, aw shucks demeanour the sisters are serious and sincere.
There was also sportsmanship. Serena, thinking she had played a bad shot, sighed 'no' loudly only for the wind to bring the ball back in. The umpire suggested the point be replayed but Serena overruled him, conceding that she had put off her sister and forfeited the point.
The momentum had swung, Venus winning five out of six of games to win the set and at the start of the next broke her own Wimbledon record with a 129mph serve. The difference between the pair was that Venus played the big points better. It took Serena seven attempts to secure her break in the second set. Venus took her first chance to break back. Serena may have had more aces and winners, but Venus was the more incisive.
At the end there was a gentle hug and then a wave to the crowd. The players guest box rose to their feet. Even Margaret Thatcher, looking stuffed in bilious pink, made it up.
'I'm so happy one of us won, we're just happy to be in the final,' said Serena with a dink and a wave to the crowd. 'When you're in the final against Serena Williams five seems so far away,' said Venus, before thanking the other sisters. 'My first job is big sister, I take that very seriously.
'At no point am I ever able to forget that it is Serena, because I have such a respect for her game,' said Venus. 'Serena is the ultimate sportsperson. We both are. We don't do injury time outs, we just play, we don't question too many calls.'
'If we are in different sides of the draw there is a likelihood we will play more grand-slam finals,' said Serena later. 'I didn't play well, I've forgotten about the match pretty much.'
The match was the highlight of a woman's tournament in which Zheng, who donated her winnings to her school that was razed in the recent earthquake, was the other star. Who would have thought the girls from Compton would give a lesson in the Corinthian spirit and the girl from Cheng Du a lesson in compassion. The (Business) School of Tennis has been outflanked. Those singing from different hymn sheets are playing the best tunes.