Sports Nut

The Weaker Circuit

Five great women’s tennis players just aren’t enough.

Chilean star Marcelo Rios took a swipe at women’s tennis last week. Noting that both he and Martina Hingis had reached the Australian Open quarterfinals but that she had barely broken a sweat in four matches, Rios quipped: “Men’s tennis is too tough. It’s not like the girls, where they win one and love”—6-1, 6-0—”until they’re in the quarters. [The women’s game is] like a joke.” Three days later, he added, “It is ridiculous what is going on in women’s tennis, and I think everybody agrees.” Rios is an ill-tempered, inarticulate jackass, but in this case he’s right. The most striking thing about women’s tennis these days is the lack of competition.

The women’s game is riding high at the moment. It was the women, not the men, whose final was staged on Saturday night at last year’s U.S. Open, a first for the sport. While the combination of graphite racquets and bigger, stronger athletes has hurt the men’s game—two goliaths exchanging unreturnable serves for three hours doesn’t exactly put fans on the edge of their seats—it has generally helped women’s tennis, fostering a faster, more aggressive style. Toss in the fact that the top women are infinitely more charismatic than the top men, and it’s obvious why the spotlight has shifted to the skirted half of the draw.

But amid all the paeans to Girl Power, one not-so-minor detail has escaped notice: It’s really only a few players—the Williams sisters, Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis, and Lindsay Davenport—who make women’s tennis worth watching. And nowhere is this more apparent than at the majors where the draws, male and female, consist of 128 players. Simply put, there aren’t enough live bodies to fill a women’s tournament that size.

The biggest hurdle facing the women’s favorites during the early stages of a major is usually boredom, as Serena Williams cheerfully admitted during last year’s Wimbledon. Following her 6-1, 6-0 pasting of a hapless first-round opponent, a reporter asked Williams why she had fallen behind 15-40 on a service game late in the match. “I was thinking about the book I have been reading,” she replied. Now that the grand slam events have doubled the number of seeded players from 16 to 32, giving the big guns even more protection, Williams might as well bring War and Peace on court with her.

This year’s Australian Open has been particularly illustrative. By the end of the second round, the men’s tournament had lost its top five seeds (four were beaten and one, Andre Agassi, withdrew with an injury). But the top-ranked women sailed through the draw. Seven of the top eight made it to the quarterfinals, and the only one who didn’t was Serena Williams, the fifth seed, who pulled out with an injury on the eve of the tournament. Martina Hingis lost only 14 games over her first five matches.

Or consider the stats from last year’s U.S. Open. During the first round, the top eight women’s seeds all won, and only one of them was pushed to a third and decisive set. Among the men, one of the top eight seeds was beaten during the first round and three were taken beyond a third set, (the women play of best of three, the men best of five). On average, the women spent 61 minutes at the office in the first round, and their average score per set was 6-2. For the men, an average 62 minutes was needed to get through two sets and the average margin was 6-3. Things tightened considerably for the men in the second round. The seven remaining high seeds took an average 72 minutes to wrap up two sets, and the average score per set was 6-4. All seven were victorious, but four were taken to extra stanzas, two to a fifth. The top eight women, by contrast, spent just 61 minutes at the baseline and their average score per set was, again, 6-2. All eight moved on and only one was forced to a third set. During the third round, life got a little tougher for the ladies, but they all won again, and once again, only one of them dropped a set.

Still unconvinced? Consider the paths the two champions took to last year’s Open’s $850,000 winner’s purse. Venus Williams didn’t lose a set the entire tournament. Sure, she played fine tennis, but she also didn’t face much resistance. During her quarterfinal against fifth seed Kim Clijsters, Williams committed 43 unforced errors and still won 6-3, 6-1. Clijsters was apparently nursing a leg injury, but if that’s the best she could manage against an opponent giving away that many points, she should have been at Lennox Hill Hospital in a body cast. Over the course of seven matches, Williams spent just 446 minutes on court. On the hand, it took men’s titlist Lleyton Hewitt 420 minutes just to survive his first three matches, and he took two of them in straight sets.

Here’s a way of redressing the imbalance: Once the women reach the round of 16, switch to the best-of-five-sets format. The fans would enjoy more tennis. The players can certainly handle more tennis. Who could object to equal work for equal pay?