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January 2003 Article

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The Glass Screening
by Parag Khanna

Give fans good tennis, not a reverse gender bias.

After several years of watching on as women’s tennis has come to dominate television coverage at the Grand Slams for the American audience, it has become necessary to voice the concern–shared by many fans across the country–that this shift lacks real justification.

Many fans will recall being denied live coverage of even a single point of Lleyton Hewitt’s Wimbledon quarterfinal nail-biter against Dutch marathoner Sjeng Shalken (which Hewitt took 7-5 in the fifth), in favor of Venus Williams’s demolition of Justine Henin, a match which was as good as over after the first half of the first set. At least the TNT anchorman felt compelled to explain that once coverage of a match is announced and has commenced, the network is obligated to show the match in its entirety.

The merits of this policy are dubious enough, especially as television technically affords viewers the luxury of moving from court to court faster than fans on the scene. As a viewer, I am looking for the best tennis, the best match, not a commitment to the reverse gender bias that has undeniably come to be a feature of tennis coverage today. Proponents of this policy often rhetorically claim that women’s tennis provides superior competition and excitement. Ironically, on closer inspection, this could not be further from the truth.

In the last decade, only a handful of women have played consistently high-quality tennis: Seles, Hingis, Capriati, the Williams sisters and Davenport. Women’s tennis in the late 80’s and early 90’s was as interesting as watching Graf grow. By contrast, men’s tennis has seen not only the pioneering and innovative play of Sampras, Agassi, Kuerten, Safin, Rafter and Hewitt, but also the riveting and emotional breakthroughs of Ivanesevic, Andy Roddick and James Blake. Whereas the aforementioned females have been challenged only by each other in the later rounds of tournaments, the old guard of men’s tennis has been attacked week after week by an astounding depth of newcomers.

At the end of 2002, 9 of the top 10 women remain in place; on the men’s side, rankings are unpredictable month to month!

In addition to the lopsided scores resulting from most women’s tennis matches, perhaps the most important indicator of match quality is the ratio of winners to unforced errors. In the all-Williams’ final at Wimbledon this year, runner-up Venus committed three times as many unforced errors as winners, and Serena almost twice as many. Statistically, like most women’s matches, Wimbledon this year was not won by consistent play, but rather lost by erratic competition. By contrast, Lleyton Hewitt had three straight matches in Wimbledon’s second week where he committed fewer than ten unforced errors. This year’s legendary US Open final saw Pete Sampras hit 84 winners to 46 unforced errors over four sets.

Why, then, has men’s tennis been shoved aside in favor of the women’s tour, which for a number of year’s even faced sponsorship trouble? Common arguments include that men’s tennis is dominated by the ace, hence rallies are few, and that women’s tennis features more "personality". Neither claim is true. Tennis is not a beauty contest, though networks clearly see it as one; Anna Kournikova may have enhanced many Internet users’ experience, but she has not enriched the sport in the least. (A point she herself proved by losing in the first round of the US Open to an opponent who hit only one winner!) The WTA’s resentment and scorn towards John Wertheim’s fictitious scouting report of a sexy future star is also evidence that the tour needs an appeal beyond the quality of play, whereas the overwhelming consensus from the this year’s US Open is that men’s tennis saved the day. Concerning rallies: again, the men’s final at this year’s Wimbledon featured two baseliners, demonstrating clearly that rallies have not disappeared, even from the surface that traditionally has been dominated by serve-and-volleyers. And this year’s Open also boasted the highest number of 5-set matches in history, further demonstrating the closeness and depth of the men’s tour.

Political and emotional debates about equal prize money in women’s tennis, the length of women’s matches, and whether women should serve as commentators for men’s matches and vice-versa are peripheral to satisfying tennis viewers’ needs and desires. The numbers underlying the men’s and women’s games today send a clear message that women’s tennis does not provide the consistent level of quality and depth which is a feature of the men’s game. The balance in tennis coverage should be restored.

Parag Khanna is an Advisor, Global Issues, World Economic Forum, and Senior Research Analyst, Governance Studies Program, The Brookings Institution.

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