They began lining up at mid-morning on Thursday to watch 15-year-old amateur CiCi Bellis play her second-round U.S. Open match. She didn’t hit the court until 8 p.m.
Above all, the sudden, frantic fascination with the elfin teenager was a “Murika!” thing. This poor country hasn’t won a Grand Slam in almost a year, and it’s begun to erode their self-confidence. America has made itself a promise – no more wars until they get this tennis thing sorted out. Not even a little incursion. No, no, not even a couple of guys in a canoe.
What made it really special is Bellis’s precociousness. The average female pro is an unusually large, lissome specimen. Bellis is a tiny little slip of a thing. Yet, she was still able to compete because she’s mastered the basics.
She doesn’t do any one thing particularly well – her average first-service speed is 135 kilometres an hour (a functional knuckleball) – but she does everything just well enough. Like every other successful woman, her game is rounded, and will grow more so.
Try to imagine a male CiCi Bellis. It’s verging on impossible. Because the men’s game isn’t about skill. It’s about brute force.
Women’s tennis is chess – in and out, lengthy rallies, in-game tactics and plotting, all happening at speed.
The men are playing checkers – huge serve, try to rip the skin off the ball, depend more on your opponent’s weakness than your own strength. It’s ballet without the dancing, only throws.
This is why women’s tennis is so much more enjoyable to watch. It’s more than that. It’s better, full stop.
A few years ago, French pro Gilles Simon wandered into a briar patch and began thrashing around when he commented on the debate over gender equality and pay.
“The male players spent twice as long on court at Roland Garros [at the French Open] as the women,” Simon said. “The equality in salaries isn’t something that works in sport. Men’s tennis remains more attractive than women’s tennis at the moment.”
Later, doubling down, he called men’s tennis “more interesting.”
Simon was ripped up and down, which was predictable and a little unfair. This isn’t a political point, but an esthetic one. Everyone’s entitled to bad taste.
Simon – and many others ducking behind him for cover – argues that the potential for five sets equals more entertainment value than the limitation of three. This is akin to saying one painting is better than another because the canvas is bigger.
Simon presumes that longer equals more – more tension, more drama, more value in real terms.
He’s wrong. Longer just equals longer. By his logic, mid-July baseball is better than World Cup soccer because the games go on forever. By his logic, Test cricket is the most interesting sport on Earth.
Call this “the Godfather Exception.” A 3.5-hour movie may be better than a 90-minute one. Generally, it’s a whole lot worse, if only because it buries the story under layers of unnecessary flab. Every five-setter resembles a classic at the end. We forget all the tedium that led up to the final release.
In order to claim that men’s tennis is more aesthetically pleasing than women’s, you have to believe a few things.
First, that power is the ultimate expression of sporting achievement. It isn’t.
Men are better athletes than women in absolute terms. They’re stronger and faster. If that were all that mattered from the viewer’s perspective, rock throwing and brick smashing would be more popular televised entertainments.
That’s what the men’s game is for the most part. Arm wrestling at a distance. Roger Federer aside, there isn’t a single top player in the men’s game who could reasonably be called elegant. Most of them are happy to stand behind the baseline wanging shots at each other until someone’s arm falls off.
It’s faster, which is an initial rush, but it’s less nimble. At its worst, it’s a pell-mell jumble of overlong limbs and all-or-nothing forehands. There’s plenty of industry and very little art.
Commenting on Milos Raonic a couple of days ago, his coach, Ivan Ljubicic, said the Canadian is “not a natural athlete.” He’s too big to be one. That’s the key to his ability. That’s true of the majority of men’s players. It’s true of almost none of the women.
They come in a variety of shapes. All of them are operating at maximum efficiency. If they wanted to play five sets, they could. And do just as bad a job at it.
But someone with sense has realized that what Grand Slam tournaments need to be is better, not longer. Would Venus Williams’s 6-0, 0-6, 7-6 (5) heartbreaker against Sara Errani on Friday have been better if it had lasted two more sets? No, it just would have had more of the drama the pair was able to pack into a sleeker package. That small classic lasted just more than two hours.
After two hours of a tight men’s match, you’re beginning to grow weary. Can’t we just skip to the deciding set now? Well, I suppose not. But don’t worry, we’ll only be stuck watching this for … oh God, another two hours. A nice thought at a Wimbledon final. A less appealing prospect in the first round of the Australian.
Most important, to believe the men’s game is better, you must believe that women should want to play more like them. More horsepower. More filler. More more.
This misses the key to any great sporting event – an array of ability. What we want from athletes is to see them do things the rest of us could not. That’s the romance. We want a full display of their talents. Not a couple of them strung over hours and hours. All of them in an hour and a half, when they’re not exhausted.
If that’s the goal, then the question should not be whether the women can raise their game to the grinding, big-bodied, max-effort level of their male counterparts.
It’s wondering why the men don’t aspire to play the game more like women.