When I was growing up, the sport on the living room TV was tennis. Tennis, in Boston during the era of Reverse the Curse and Brady’s rise to power on the Patriots. Tennis didn’t have the glamour or the stadium-wide roar of other sports. It didn’t carry the brutality of cracking bones, or the sense of fans screaming over pints all over Boston. It also wasn’t a boys’-club sport like football and baseball and hockey and basketball. The players we watched were Venus and Serena [Williams] and Maria Sharapova. I was learning to read English out of books about the Williams sisters. As Jon Wertheim writes in Sports Illustrated, “in the late ’90s, the women were the big draw and the men’s game—beset by crippling parity and unreliable top players—were an afterthought.”
Tennis’s Hollywood presence was distinctly “feminine” as well: a tennis movie, for instance, was certainly not a football or a baseball or a hockey movie. A tennis movie was not Miracle or even The Longest Yard. A tennis movie was Wimbledon, the essential flimsy rom com, two blonde stars exchanging flirtatious volleys verbally as much as across the net. Tennis, that female-dominated sport, was exempted in that way from falling into the category of a sports movie.
In most of its on-scene appearances, tennis is an interlude, a visual technique for developing interpersonal tensions between characters—see Pat and Mike, Clueless, Strangers on a Train, Lolita. On the small-screen broadcast, the real sport was a hard-hitting marathon of individual women throwing the full weight of muscled bodies behind serves traveling over one hundred miles per hour. On a larger screen, and in the broader, popular sense associated with it, the sport seemed to be tinged irreparably with a casual unseriousness. A sense of girliness.
“To talk about women in sport is to describe a paradox,” Margaret Carlisle Duncan writes, “for sport is a province that is deemed most properly male.” Just as femininity is characterized as the antithesis of masculinity—that is, “strength, power, aggression, and confidence”—that paradigm presents a damaging prospect to the idea of portraying women as successful athletes. A “women’s sport” on screen seems to bend to that paradoxical convention. Sure the sport is on screen, but there’s often so much more in the way of context than of dramatic tension on court. We expect a punchline, not the sweat-dripping athletic competition between characters central to a boxing match or a football game. In other words, it’s not a sports movie. Rather than the score, we’re focused on romance, on how the women are perceived while playing, on what man is watching them, not on the competition.
Often, tennis appears as a sport of psychological maneuvering to move the plot ahead, reveal a secret, or emphasize dramatic tension. Perhaps we do have Nabokov in part to thank for that. His use of tennis in Lolita doesn’t exactly make the ensuing film a tennis movie, but it exemplifies how the sport isn’t usually a sport on screen. Rather it’s something akin to chess—another favorite Nabokovian device—with tennis as a slightly more physical exercise of wills and intellect. The difference here is that chess does get its turn at a bio pic sports movie (Pawn Sacrifice).
A sports movie about women is, broadly speaking, about women in sports, rather than the sport itself, just as the women’s soccer championship is the Women’s World Cup, rather than the World Cup. See A League of Their Own, or Bend It Like Beckham. To me that sort of summarizing sense speaks volumes about why sports films have fallen out of my domain. My childhood association with the game was with its female athletes—but the broad sense of “female marketing” denoted a “feminine” trope in films and reputation, the sport watered down to a plot device, a mental exercise rather than a brutal physical one, in the scarce blockbusters dedicated to it.
Femininity on the small screen presents its difficulties too in the world of sports broadcasting. The aura of the sport has proven difficult to balance with the eventual emergence of male stars on the court. The arrival of male stars transmuted tennis from a flirtatious volley in a romantic comedy into a sports event—or, at least it did in the eyes of the male players and officials for whom the history of women’s reign on court evaporated with the arrival of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal.
Nothing perhaps more emphasizes that brisk erasure of women stars than the sweeping statements of the last week. Djokovic noisily questioned why male tennis players aren’t paid more than women, in a rare sport where equal pay between men and women is a reality. This followed on the heels of a statement from Raymond Moore, Indian Welles Tennis Garden CEO, that today’s women tennis stars should “go down every night on [their] knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born,” adding that the Women Tennis Association “ride[s] on the coat-tails of the men.” In short, the men verbally hand the credit for tennis’s status as a serious and popular sport into the hands of its recent male superstars. (After all, says Duncan, “Sport is, according to our commonsense understanding of the world, a celebration of manhood.”)
While the actual history of women on the court flatly disproves such briskly rewritten histories (remember the male stars of the ’90s as an “afterthought”), that unfortunately doesn’t forestall the debate—if it deserves that title—over men and women’s respective pay. The politics surrounding women’s sports and women’s broadcasting certainly do not exist in a vacuum. Almost concurrently with Moore’s comments, five members of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, reigning world champions, were filing a federal equal-pay complaint against U.S. Soccer Federation, regarding the lack of equal pay. Women soccer players on the national team receive forty-percent lower pay versus their male counterparts (The U.S. men’s team is currently ranked thirtieth in the world, with far lower broadcast ratings).
The women’s soccer team stands in a position painfully reminiscent of women tennis players. Responsible for cultivating Americans’ interest in the sport, in boosting ratings, for taking home the titles, Duncan’s “paradox” of a female athlete remains.
The narrative around the sport—tangled in the female-dominated game I grew up with, the tropes of romance and voyeurism bound up in its media presence—is not a consistent one between the male and female sides.
Playing the part of the public athlete isn’t only a matter of appearing on the court, in a sport where gender norms can erase a decade of achievement. The story around the sport has only been “rebranded” as male relatively recently. That rewriting hasn’t sunk its roots into Hollywood, where tennis’s impression as the ’90s sport of femininity overflows into 2000s romance flicks. It’s a convoluted sort of memory, how the bricks that form the roots of the sport’s popularity are lost from sight underneath the broad, flashy structure that we see today. The concrete media legacy of a women’s tennis court survives in the celebrity players’ titles and in the stigma of having been so pervasively feminine that Hollywood framed the sport in just the way it did.
Photo of Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams, courtesy of Ubitennis.net