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Crying in the Wilderness

Thoughts on tennis, Title IX, and pride after an emotional Wimbledon weekend

Maybe it was the rain. Players who lost cried; players who won cried. Crowds cried. I cried several times, including a few minutes ago, at the dinner table, describing Andy Murray’s tears. The end of anything can be emotional, and this Wimbledon, more than most events, felt like a culmination. Maybe it was the feverish brilliance of Lukas Rosol, or Yaroslava Shvedova’s golden set, or Brian Baker’s run. Maybe it was Andy Murray and the hope of all of Britain. Or maybe it was because Roger Federer and Serena Williams are Wimbledon champions again, both at the age of 30, having come so far — in such different ways — to return to a place they both know well. Maybe it was simply because the desire and pressure placed upon these players makes them as vulnerable as their audiences. Still, I never expected that Andy Murray would make me cry.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. Cameron Diaz, after all, has made me cry. Joy, frustration, fear, anxiety, and sympathy tend to bring tears to my eyes. This may or may not have to do with the fact that I’m a woman. I cry more than most guys I know, but not as often as John Boehner. My tears are often regarded gently, but sometimes too seriously. Sometimes I feel like Meg Ryan’s character in Courage Under Fire, when her men see her crying and think she’s cracking under pressure. They’re just tears, assholes, she more or less tells them. They don’t mean anything.

Crying has always had a place in sports. The stadium has always been regarded as the rare place where that’s acceptable, where it humanizes, not feminizes, men on the field and in the stands. These days, tears on even the faces of female athletes aren’t taken as a sign of weakness. I suppose that’s progress, though I flinch at the idea that “feminize” is still used as a slur.

I have been thinking a lot in the past couple of weeks about the expectations placed on women, and particularly female athletes and female fans. Let me be more direct: to quote Andy Murray, “This is going to be hard.” I’ve been thinking a lot about my own expectations. One of the reasons is Serena Williams’s serve.

Since I don’t know better, I’ll call it perfect. For such a strong serve, everything about her motion, until she transfers her power up and into the court, is so gentle and tender: the way she grips and tosses the ball; the graceful orbit of her racket head; the small slide of her right foot toward the left as she balances and prepares to unload. The numbers at Wimbledon speak for themselves: her record 102 aces over the tournament. Her record 24 aces in one match, during her semifinal win over Victoria Azarenka, one of the best returners in the game. The countless varieties of spins, speeds, and placement, all deliberate. Her second serve — a weakness for most women — is also a precise and powerful weapon. In the New York Times, Pam Shriver estimated that she would have “an average guy’s serve on the tour, which is saying more than any other woman. But under pressure, even on the guys’ tour, she’d be above average.” When people praise it, they compare it to a man’s serve. I do, too.

Why do we do that? When I watch Serena Williams serve, I’m not thinking, Wow, that serve is better than Fernando Verdasco’s! I’m certain that Pam Shriver isn’t either. You watch Serena’s serve for what it is. It’s just gorgeous.

This year’s Wimbledon is the seventh consecutive major with a different women’s champion.1 Meanwhile, three men have won 29 of the last 30 majors. A lot of the talk about the women’s tour concerns (a) grunting, (b) mental collapses, and (c) chaos in the rankings. A lot of the talk about the men’s tour concerns the sublime quality of tennis and which player is the greatest player of all time.

So, maybe Gilles Simon, a top-20 player and member of the ATP player’s council, was feeling a little cocky when he declared that the men — all of them! — thought that the women didn’t deserve equal prize money. After trying (and flubbing) the men-play-more-sets argument, Simon tried the entertainment-value angle. “I have the feeling that men’s tennis is actually more interesting than women’s tennis,” he said. “As in any business or anything, you just have to be paid just about that.”

When Serena was asked about Simon’s comments, she had a good laugh about Maria Sharapova’s response (“I’m sure there are a few more people that watch my matches than his,” said one of the world’s highest-paid athletes), and then became uncommonly serious. “It’s a great fight,” she said. “We fought for years with Billie Jean King, and Venus as well.” She added that they “really set the pattern on what we should do.”

Billie Jean King has been fighting that fight for four decades. In Game, Set, Match, Susan Ware’s excellent history of King and Title IX, she insisted that women would not be respected like men until they were paid like men. “Money is everything in sports,” King said. She sometimes sounded a little like Gilles Simon — even if her aims were very different. “We’re in big business, and until people face reality we’ll be dabbling in nonsense forever. … Entertainment value, getting people through the turnstiles, that’s the name of the game.”

It is still, for King, the name of the game. In an interview marking the 40th anniversary of Title IX, she deplored the lack of professional opportunities for women in sports. “We don’t have the professional leagues,” she told the Huffington Post. “We don’t have anything compared to the guys. We don’t get the support from women — they don’t buy season tickets. … Women need to support women.”

By 1974, only two years after the passage of Title IX, the number of high school girls playing sports jumped from 300,000 to 1.3 million. The long-term impact of the legislation is incalculable. Not only did it open doors for women in a wide swath of fields (sports was never the immediate concern of the legislation), but the opportunities it provided and the principles behind it gave untold millions of girls confidence to pursue and develop their talents, wherever they lay. As a kid, I took opportunities to play sports for granted. It seemed like a fundamental right — perhaps the first right I ever assumed. I simply cannot imagine what my life would be like, what my sense of myself would be like, without Title IX.2

Yet I read the heartfelt celebrations of female athletes with some feelings of guilt. If King is right, if “entertainment value” is “the name of the game,” if “money is everything in sports,” then the impact of Title IX has been more mixed. Do I think Diana Taurasi is graceful, strong, and admirable? Yes! But would I pay to watch her play? Probably not. I’d rather watch the NBA, where the players are quicker and more powerful. It’s possible that if I were more of a basketball fan, more aware of the subtleties of the game, I would notice things about women’s basketball that would stop me from viewing it as an inferior version of men’s. But frankly, I don’t know many basketball fans, male or female, who don’t see it that way. Other sports are also problematic. I love following the Women’s World Cup, but I didn’t blink when Women’s Professional Soccer folded. I had never watched a game.

Obviously, King isn’t saying that women have an obligation to support the WNBA or WPS, or to be basketball or soccer fans at all. But if money is equated with respect, then the financial health of the few women’s professional leagues in the U.S. surely matters.

This summer, for 16 days, hundreds of millions of people will watch women compete in the 2012 Olympic Games. The women will be cheered and lionized. Some of them will make some money. For the most part, though, they’ll do it by selling me sports bras. They’ll earn their checks making highly stylized, glamorized advertisements, not by making shots. Those are the lucky ones. The others won’t have time to worry about what brand of sports bra I wear. They’ll be worrying about affording their own.

I want to support women — and I want Taurasi, and any woman who wants to and who has the skills, to play at the highest levels for as long as possible. I respect her and I want others to respect her. I want her to respect herself. But I don’t want to buy season tickets to the Phoenix Mercury.

Where does this leave us? I’m not sure. These are early days for many women’s sports. The athletes are becoming stronger and more skilled. More girls are playing. Maybe someday the WNBA won’t feel like a hologram of the NBA. Maybe someday the success of the U.S. women’s soccer team on international fields will translate into financial success and a sustainable league on American fields. Maybe I should be more patient. Or maybe I should be less patient. Maybe I should buy those goddamn season tickets.

Or maybe we need to have a more open conversation about what women’s sports mean to our culture, to men as well as women. How do we define “entertainment value”? Can we acknowledge the fact that the best male athletes are faster and stronger than the best female athletes without promoting bad stereotypes of women? Can we acknowledge that women can be stronger than men without falling into other stereotypes? Do participation and professionalization go hand in hand? Should the market dictate the worth of an athlete, and if it shouldn’t, what should?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. Money does matter, but my hope is that money isn’t actually everything in sports. On this, I hope that King is wrong in the long run, and that American culture can change. I hope testosterone isn’t everything in sports, either. It’s not a futile hope.

When King took on Bobby Riggs in the infamous Battle of the Sexes 39 years ago, she had been provoked, goaded, and disrespected, and not just by Riggs. When she won, she didn’t just prove that a female athlete in her prime could beat a middle-aged has-been. What kind of equality would that be? She proved that she could withstand tremendous pressure, that she could transcend the role that she’d been handed and write her own. She proved that she had pride, and that she was worth watching.

My hope is that everyone will recognize that there is something sublime about watching a woman display the strength and the grace of her body, and the confidence and intelligence of her mind, and that women will have every chance to display the power and grace of their bodies and the confidence and intelligence of their minds. My hope is that women will recognize that there is something sublime about strengthening their bodies and sharpening their minds. Also, sports are fun.

My real hope is that you watched the women play at Wimbledon this year.

Women’s tennis has always been the exception. Even before the tireless work of King and others to put professional women on par with men, women’s tennis had an audience, one that included men as well as the women. At times, the popularity of the women’s tour exceeded the men’s. Now is not one of those times. It could be that there are other ways to think about the state of women’s tennis. In recent years, too many women’s tennis matches have been painful to watch. The results have been haphazard and too predictably unpredictable. I like watching mental collapses the way some people like horror movies, but it’s hard to feel invested in players who not only let you down, but who look like they’re letting themselves down.

If the top men tend to be more entertaining than the women, it’s not because they hit harder, or move faster, or serve better. It’s because they have a tendency to lift each other when they play. Yesterday, at times, Andy Murray played as well as I’ve ever seen him play, and his play brought out Roger Federer’s greatness. After the first set, Federer showed a kind of deftness, clarity, and precision that was at once vintage and totally new. The two drop volleys that he hit to end the second set were essentially “confidence” defined in geometric form. It was inspiring. I think it inspired everyone, even those who didn’t want to see him win. It’s just human to respond to beauty.

But the women can play with that kind of beauty, too. They did this tournament. In match after match, the women played with confidence and composure and guts. One of them played flawlessly for a set! For the first time, I found myself as interested — more interested — in what was happening on the women’s side as on the men’s. A lot of the credit goes to Serena and her serve. They say the serve is the only shot you can completely control, the only shot that begins and ends with yourself.

The women haven’t always played their best in the past few years. Watch them improve. Serena was having trouble, uncomfortable on the grass. So she spoke to her father and coach and made adjustments mid-tournament. You know what happened next. Petra Kvitova has struggled to regain the form she had beating Sharapova at Wimbledon last year. When she played Serena in the quarters, she hit her clean, powerful ground strokes, and both players elevated their game. It was a fantastic match. When Serena played Azarenka, Azarenka also played well. There was no shame in losing. Kvitova and Azarenka played their games. I mean it as a compliment when I say that they were beaten well.

If you really need a reminder that women’s tennis offers its own extraordinary pleasures, though, consider the final. The quality of the women’s game is as much about the delicate Aga Radwanska as it is about the powerful Williams. Radwanska plays with design. Her defensive-offensive game is creative while reactive. She covers ground, hits lob and drop shots and crafty angles. It is possible to overpower her, but she has her own weapons. One of them is incredible consistency, a manifestation of her confidence.

A lot of people, including me, expected Serena to overwhelm Aga. In the end, she did. But not before Radwanska began to push the points longer in the second set and made Serena play her way. She made Serena think.

Serena is a genius, and so thinking helped her game, too. In the third set, she was in command. Every time she stood at the baseline to hit her serve, she knew where she was and what she would do. Serena can be a difficult presence. She can seem so angry, or flippant, or ridiculous. But she is also brave and generous, and so is her game.

Do I think Serena deserved £1.15 million for her victory? Of course! Insofar as anyone deserves £1.15 million for hitting a ball across a net. Her value, her worth, is inestimable. If it takes equal pay to say that, then show me the money. But I don’t think the money mattered nearly as much, to her or to me, as her pride.

When Radwanska addressed the crowd after her loss, she, like Murray, was fighting tears. They meant something different than his did, but I was just as struck by them. Radwanska was not happy to lose. When all the world had thought she’d cower, she had played her game. Maybe tears mean something after all. Not weakness, though. Something more like self-respect.

Filed Under: Tennis, Events, Sports, Wimbledon

Louisa Thomas is a Grantland staff writer and editor.

Archive @ louisahthomas