Half-Assed On Center Court
The Sorry State of Women's Tennis
Reports from Wimbledon about the lack of bums filling the Centre Court seats and what it says about the women's game...
Paolo Bandini and Les Roopanarine, covering Thursday's Wimbledon semifinal match between Serena Williams and Zheng Jie - which Serena won in straight sets, 6-2, 7-6 (7-5), to set up an all-Williams final against her sister Venus - for the Guardian UK, reported, "I'm disappointed to say ... that a staggering number of empty seats remain on Centre Court. I would be very surprised if we see similar gaps for the men tomorrow. Is this an indication that, despite equal pay, men's tennis remains more popular with the fans?"
Guardian blogger Gary Naylor follows up this theme:
"On the blogs, it has been claimed that Zheng's giant-killing is a reflection of the depth of the women's game. Isn't it, and the empty seats to which you refer, more a reflection of its shallowness? Outside the top few, all are much of a muchness, neither fit enough nor powerful enough to challenge the elite. That elite has now shrunk due to the physical and psychological burden of ascending through junior tennis, then staying at the top. Clijsters, Henin, Hingis and this Wimbledon, Sharapova, Ivanovic and Jankovic are all absent or as good as absent. Richard Williams may not please everyone (or anyone) but he knew what he was doing with his dazzlingly dedicated daughters."
Another blogger, Andi Thomas, blames the sorry state of women's tennis on the lack of competitive challenges and a strong storyline to match the Nadal-chasing-Federer narrative:
"I think part of the reason for the Centre Court gaps might be the relative lack of any strong narrative to the tournament, especially when compared to the men's tournament running alongside. Somebody (McEnroe? Bolletieri?) said that this was the best men's No1 and No2 in the history of the sport, and the momentum building behind their possible/probable final meeting is almost tangible. Add in the frankly unknowable Marat Safin, and that's a fascinating build-up.
"By contrast, the women's tournament has been underwhelming. The upsets have been down to poor performance and fitness, and the two favourites are the only two elite players so far who've been playing anywhere near well. Add to that the general shallowness of the field, the stylistic mundanity of 99% of the women's game, the general antipathy of the tennis establishment to the Williams' sisters, the all-round brevity of three-set tennis, and you don't have a recipe for bums on seats."
The astute Thomas adds that the all-Williams final narrative pales against the men's 1-2 Punch storyline:
"The Federer/Nadal dominance stays interesting because their excellence feels like a pushing of the boundaries for men's tennis, particularly from Nadal. It feels like we're seeing something of importance and significance for the game as a whole: the undisputed king and the up-and-coming pretender (at least on grass). As such, the smoothness of their progress is less due to the weakness of the game and more due to their extraordinary talent."
"Whereas the Williams sisters have proceeded this smoothly largely thanks to the inadequacies of those nominally around the same level Ivanovic, Sharapova, Jankovic, Dementieva) and the retirement of Henin. It's more interesting to watch two players demolish everything around them because they're that much better, than to watch two players demolish everything around them because it's been weak, at least from a narrative point of view. Much better to see excellence rewarded than competence indulged, I reckon, and the sisters haven't had to be anything but competent so far."
Plus, those all-Williams finals tend to be very dull and undramatic, not the stuff of great tennis. Almost like watching a celebrity charity match in which neither side wants to show up their opponent so they tamp it down a bit.