The XX Factor

Do Female Tennis Players Need to “Lean In”?

“I use it, I don’t abuse it,” Sloane Stevens told Sports Illustrated.


In 2006, tennis established an electronic replay system that allows players to challenge the judge’s line call. Sports Illustrated counted up the challenges lodged at this year’s Wimbledon, and found that men are significantly more likely to roll the tape than female players are. It’s Lean In, Sporting Edition:

Over the course of the two-week tournament, men challenged 375 times, while women challenged 179 times. This is a bit misleading, since men’s matches are best of five sets and women play best of three, and men are assigned more matches on the “show courts,” which feature the replay technology. (We’ll save a discussion of this inequality for another time.) So, we looked at challenges per point. Research by SI intern Robert Hess shows that women challenged 2.6% of the points played at Wimbledon 2013, while men challenged on 3.3% of their points—more than 25% more often. At last year’s U.S. Open, women challenged 2.8% of their points; men challenged 3.5%, again an increase of 25%. At the Australian Open, women challenged 3.4% versus 3.8% among the men. (The fourth major, the French Open, does not utilize replay technology because the balls leave marks in the clay, Roland Garros’s version of forensic evidence.)

When they do challenge a call, SI found, “male and female players come astonishingly close in their success rate on their appeals. At Wimbledon, for instance, men won their challenges 27.73% of the time; women, 27.37%. Success rates at the U.S. Open in recent years were similar.” As Martina Navratilova told the magazine: “This is exactly what [Sheryl Sandberg] was talking about. What are they called? Player challenges. Well, as women we need to be more comfortable challenging. Here’s one area where there’s no reason we shouldn’t be just like the men.”

Is there really “no reason” that women shouldn’t be “just like the men”? We can zero in on one statistical difference between men and women and find one gender at fault, but that data point is just one of thousands of factors that contribute to a career—or even a single tennis match. As SI reader Dane pointed out in a letter to the magazine:

I would like to push back a little on one of the fundamental assumptions behind this whole discussion (an assumption that often goes unexamined in a lot of gender-related discussions, Lean In included) that Susan Pinker has called ‘the vanilla gender assumption.’ There is a tendency to view males as the archetypical human and statistical deviations from the male ‘baseline’ as aberrational. In this case, we assume that males are somehow using the challenge system better than females and then look for explanations for why women are falling behind. Even with the observed data, however, it is totally plausible that women are actually better at using the challenge system.

Players are granted only three challenges per set (if the challenge is successful, it doesn’t count). Writes Dane, “If men are challenging more and at the same success rate, then they are also making many more incorrect challenges and must therefore be more likely to run out of challenges before a set is finished.” The data isn’t telling us how many male and female players are drying up all their challenges before the set is up, or how  challenges are actually contributing to wins and losses. That’s particularly relevant in light of the gender segregation of professional tennis: Unlike the business world that Sandberg writes from, women are playing women and men are playing men, so their divergent styles aren’t directly affecting the other gender’s game.

It’s easy to tell women to challenge more calls. It’s a lot harder to erase the gender divide in tennis and the world in which it’s played—a world in which female tennis players are often characterized as “divas” and unduly criticized for their attitudes on and off the court. (“In the women’s game,” Liz Clarke wrote in the Washington Post recently, “choosing friends often becomes a tactical question. … whether one top player likes another or is regarded as ‘friendly’ is more intensely scrutinized and commented upon in women’s tennis.”)

It’s almost impossible to know whether shifting one data point will actually change anything for an individual player or her sport. This was the central failure of Lean In itself, which compiled a mess of academic studies and personal anecdotes that often contradicted each other—studies show that women should cry more/less, should talk more/less, should promote their accomplishments more/less—and then ultimately concluded that women should just try harder, whatever that means.