As Roger Federer hobbled through his quarterfinal match against Rafael Nadal at Indian Wells — a match that failed to live up to the high standards of the rivalry due to Federer’s injury — the Toronto Star’s Damien Cox decided to weigh in on the subject:
I wouldn’t have bothered addressing this notion, due to the fact that Cox is a columnist who prides himself on making controversial statements. I usually consider his comments to be silly white noise.
But then, a much more respected figure in the tennis community, Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim, chimed in:
Earlier in the day, Sam Stosur withdrew from her match against Angelique Kerber, citing a calf injury, and Victoria Azarenka withdrew from her match against Caroline Wozniacki with an ankle injury.
Here’s the immediate problem with these writers’ comments: Stosur has retired from two matches in her entire career. This was the first time she’d ever pulled out and given her opponent a walkover. This was just the third time in her entire career that Stosur quit a tournament midway due to injury, numbers that compare similarly to Roger Federer’s two career walkovers.
Azarenka is admittedly a different story. Her injury retirement and withdrawal history is well-documented. However, she was in tears during one of her matches when she lunged on the injured ankle, and footage was shown of her struggling to walk without a limp during practice. There was no doubt that Azarenka was dealing with a significant injury.
The timing of the two withdrawals was unfortunate, because it happened to leave the tournament without any WTA matches that day. But given Stosur’s history of either luck with injuries or reluctance to withdraw unless absolutely necessary, and given Azarenka’s obvious acute injury, it was unreasonable to react to these withdrawals with anything other than understanding that both players were simply physically unable to play their matches. I’m assuming that neither Cox nor Wertheim were privy to any of the three injured players’ medical records before making their statements.
Federer prides himself on his record of not withdrawing from tournaments, and that’s great for him. Fans appreciate a player who toughs out a match like the one he played against Nadal. But he’s also had some luck staying healthy throughout his career, and he’s the exception, not the rule, on the ATP Tour. There are plenty of ATP players whose injury withdrawal histories look more like Azarenka’s than Federer’s. And quite frankly, the Federer-Nadal match was borderline unwatchable because of Federer’s obvious back problem.
The incident is simply a continuation of the disturbing phenomenon that’s arisen in professional tennis. The two tours have grown to become adversarial to one another. Every situation is an excuse for some tennis player, member of the media, or commentator to tear down the WTA.
At a combined event, I still look at the order of play and find matches of equal interest on both tours. There’s no difference to me; the men and women are both more than capable of showcasing lovely ball-striking and compelling tennis strategy. They are different, but one is not superior to the other.
Yet, somewhere along the way, it became common for ATP players, reporters, and fans to make jabs about the WTA:
Stakhovsky, a member of the ATP Players’ Council, is a public face of the ATP, and he’s on social media, bragging about how he could beat the top-ranked female player. For a sport that prides itself on cordiality and sportsmanship, it looks pretty poor for men’s tennis’ representatives to be diminishing female players for not being able to compete against those who were born physically stronger than them. Yes, Stakhovsky could presumably beat Serena Williams. He was born with physical capabilities that allow him to put more MPHs on his serve and groundstrokes. So what? Does this make him a superior tennis player? Certainly not.
The WTA was not founded as if it was some sort of competing sports league against the ATP. Women are competing against other women, yet somehow the media narrative always becomes a contest to prove which tour is more gritty or willing to play through injuries, which tour produces more compelling tennis (a matter of opinion), or which tour showcases the best displays of mental strength.
When one of the top women beats an opponent, 6-0, 6-1, it’s an excuse to criticize the lack of depth in women’s tennis. When a top man beats an opponent 6-0, 6-1, it’s because he’s just an elite player.
When a top woman takes a poorly-timed, questionable medical timeout, it’s an excuse to ask her 23 times about it in her post-match press conference, and to use it as a generalization on the state of women’s tennis.
When a top man takes a poorly-timed, questionable medical timeout, he’s not even asked about it in the post-match presser.
When players trade breaks in a WTA match, it means they’re playing poor quality tennis. When the men do it, it’s just a toughly contested match between great returners.
When Serena Williams comes back and dominates the WTA Tour after a long injury absence, it’s an “indictment” of every other woman on the WTA Tour:
Yet now, and even though she still puffs heavily after punishing, long rallies, Williams is again one of the favorites to win Wimbledon.
An uplifting personal story if she pulls it off. Champion, back from death’s door, and all that.
But how acutely embarrassing for women’s tennis.
But what an indictment a Williams win would be for all the other women who, by now, really should be making a far bigger imprint on the game.
When Nadal comes back and immediately reaches four finals, winning three of those, including his first Masters 1000 event on his worst surface after a long injury layoff, it’s good for tennis.
Serena Williams has a track record of outclassing everyone else on the WTA, but if she loses matches, it’s because of “hormones.” When a top man loses, it’s because he must be valiantly carrying an injury.
These are just examples, and there are exceptions to these generalizations, but avid WTA fans will tell you that the tennis world is uncomfortably fixated on the WTA’s shortcomings. Any minuscule problem with a WTA player becomes a reflection on the women’s game, where the same standards are rarely applied to the men’s tour.
Tennis is not a game that belongs only to men, just because they were born with more muscle mass than women. Just because they are capable of hitting the ball harder doesn’t mean their version of the game is superior to watching women showcase their competitive spirit and athleticism on court.
What’s the lesson in this? I don’t know. I don’t know what can be done with a problem this ingrained. These things presumably grow better with time and awareness, but they’re not changing quickly.
Diminishing the women’s game will never strengthen the ATP Tour, and it will never strengthen tennis as a whole.