Equal Play Dispute

In Tennis on September 15, 2010 at 4:19 pm

A classic mens US Open casts a harsh light on the one-sided routs that have become the norm in the womens game

Rafael Nadal put in a performance for the ages on Sunday night

Late on Monday night, after four hours of absorbing tennis, the new US Open champion Rafael Nadal collapsed on Arthur Ashe, his body drained but his lifelong dream fulfilled. As his beaten opponent trudged to the net, the crowd rose as one to show their appreciation for one of the greatest performances in the tournament’s history. Nadal was simply imperious.

Had it been almost any other player in the world standing on the opposite baseline it would have been a quick final. Fortunately for all concerned, it was the pride of Serbia, Novak Djokovic. Rather than fold under the onslught, the 23 year old scrapped and battled for all he was worth to stay in the match, even forcing Nadal into a fourth set for the first time in the tournament.

In the end it wasn’t enough, but no blame can reasonably be attached to Djokovic. He played as well as he can, gave it his all, and contributed to a breathtaking spectacle. It is his misfortune to have been born into a golden era of men’s tennis, and it looks as though his considerable talents will not yield the success they perhaps should.

In Nadal and Roger Federer, we are witnessing two of the greatest players the sport has ever produced. Last night the Spaniard joined his arch-rival as just the seventh player in history to claim all four Slams. Only Andre Agassi had managed it in the Open era, before these two titans emerged.

To give that achievement even more context, leaving aside the awesome Pete Sampras, Agassi’s other Grand Slam final wins have come against the likes of Medvedev, Martin and Clement. Along with their own historic rivalry, Nadal and Federer have had to overcome talents as immense and diverse as Djokovic, Murray, Roddick, Soderling and Del Potro, not to mention the older generation of Hewitt, Safin and, yes, Agassi himself.

How times have changed.

In the 90s, many despaired of the men’s game as Sampras seemed to usher in an era of booming serves and staccato points. Players like Phillippoussis, Courier and Ivanisevic looked like dragging the game in a direction which bored many to tears, as nippy baseliners were marginalised and rallies of more than three shots became collector’s items.

At that time, the women’s game was on the rise. There, many found the prolonged exchanges and subtle play that seemed to be dying out of the slam-bam bluntness of the men. The women lacked the natural power to crash down 30+ aces a match, and despite the emergence of Steffi Graf, there were real rivalries to get wrapped up in. They could justifiably claim to draw as big a crowd as the men, and on the crest of this wave, equal pay was sought and deservedly gained.

Unfortunately, the ladies’ are on the wane. Nowadays, they are often a mere sideshow to the men’s  main event, as most onlookers are hooked by the lure of Federer et al and their marathon tussles.

Compare and contrast the respective performances in this US Open for example. While Nadal admittedly cruised to the final, Federer’s semi final clash with Djokovic was a match for the ages. There were also pulsating five-set thrillers between Wawrinka and Querrey, Ferrer and Verdasco and Youzhny and Wawrinka again. That’s just from the last 16, and doesn’t even take into account the drama of Roddick’s early implosion, Murray’s fall, the lunatic play of Monfils and the eventual runner-up Djokovic being stretched into five sets in the very first round.

The womens’ draw was a virtual snooze-fest in comparison, with only four matches from the last 16 going into three sets. Caroline Wozniacki’s progress encapsulates the problem, as she steamrolled her way into the semis losing just 17 games in five matches, only to bow out with a barely audible whimper against Vera Zvonareva. Zvonareva in turn took just three games from Kim Clijsters in a soporific climax.

Clijsters had been responsible for much of the drama up to that point, coming out the right end of the only three-setters in the last eight and the only player in those final stages to recover from a set down as she won

Despite her insistence that her Wimbledon breakdown was in the past, Zvonareva dissolved again at Flushing Meadows

the game of the tournament, her semi final victory over Venus Williams. Along with the Williams sisters, she seems to be one of the very few players who possess the steel to flourish in such adversity.

The monsters at the top of the mens’ ranking and their colourful supporting cast consistently draw the best out of each other, and almost every match is won by the man who can raise his game highest. With too few exceptions, the women seem to freeze on the big occasion, and the big matches are won by the player who can hold things together and avoid crumbling. It may seem harsh, but Zvonareva’s tears can be seen as symptomatic of the mental fragility which many exude.

The strange thing is that it’s not isolated to just a few, it seems to be widespread. Of 20 Grand Slam finals played since 2006, there have been nine separate winners, but only two of the finals have gone to three sets. In the mens draw, by contrast, only Del Potro and Djokovic have broken the dominance of Nadal and Federer, but five of those 20 finals have gone the full five sets.

It’s sad, but these days I find myself completely uninterested in most ladies matches. I miss the days of watching epic storylines unfold as warriors like Davenport and Sanchez-Vicario slug it out, but unfortunately I don’t see them returning anytime soon.


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