Fandoms and Bandwagons

The Spin
We have seen it all before.  A young up and coming player whom no one has ever ever heard of (unless you are truly a fan of the WTA) comes out smoking and takes down some big name players.  Young player is fearless.  She has a huge serve, big groundies and just seems unfazed by the moment.  We have seen a lot of those over the past few months: Kasatkina at Charleston last year, Anisimova at Indian Wells, Keys at the Australian Open a few years ago, Kerber when she made it to the US Open semis, Stosur when she took down Serena, Muguruza at the French Open, Ostapenko at last year’s French Open and more recently Osaka at Indian Wells this year.  All of a sudden we are amazed at this young player.  We are following that player on  Twitter and Instagram and we just can’t get enough. That is until that player takes down our fave.
Yesterday at the Miami Open, Naomi Osaka, who is currently being coached by former hitting partner of Serena Williams, faced off against her childhood idol, Serena Williams.  One of the hardest things for any athlete to do, or indeed anyone who has idols is to finally meet that idol in person.  There are two things that can happen.  Either you turn yourself into a national embarassment by babbling incoherently or if you are an athlete you play so poorly that your idol dismisses you.
Neither of those things happened yesterday.  Osaka played fearlessly.  She stood on that baseline and she beat Serena Williams like she stole something.  If you are a Serena Williams fan you were no doubt disappointed.  You felt anger and you resented Osaka, because guess what, Osaka is what Serena Williams used to be when she was that age.
Serena was fearless and she was able to come up with big shots under pressure.  Yesterday she wasn’t able to summon that reserve of energy and strength that is the hallmark of her career.  Osaka had a lot to do with that, but the Spin would be lying if we didn’t mention what is happening in the background with Serena.
I have one live birth and one miscarriage.  My live birth was a terrible pregnancy.  I was sick for most of it.  Had to be in and out of the hospital countless times.  Was fed intravenously for the first 5 months and the thought of food made me sick to my stomach.  To this day I can’t use Palmolive dishwashing liquid, neither can I stand the scent of Coast bath soap.  My live pregnancy was 31 years ago this year.  For my miscarriage the post partum lasted a very long time.
Serena Williams gave birth 6 months ago.  Her breasts indicate that she is still lactating.  Her body is not what it used to be and it won’t be for quite some time. We all know that Serena is as stubborn as they come.  I understand from social media that her team felt that she was coming back too quickly.  People pointed out that her father was on site during her practice session and not her mother as is usual.
I won’t continue to speculate about the inner workings of Team Serena, but from where I was sitting in my office yesterday and watching the match, Serena is a step slow and she is not reading the game very well.  Her serve is not as potent as it used to be.  Osaka knew Serena’s game inside and out, not because she idolised her but because she was prepared.  When you hire as your head coach the person who prepared Serena for matches for close to 10 years, you get an insider’s look at Serena.  You get to see inside her head and be prepared for anything.  Osaka was prepared and that had a lot to do with her coach, but it also had a lot to do with Serena as well, who was undoubtedly unprepared for the onslaught that she faced on court.
What Next for Serena?
Practice, practice and more practice.  Serena is going to have to get accustomed to losing matches.  She is going to have to find that reserve of mental toughness that is and was the hallmark of her career.   She is going to have to be prepared to fight for points like she has never done before.  She is going to have to go into matches thinking that if I don’t win this next point I am out of the tournament.  It will take time for her to come back as a full force on the Tour, but I strongly believe that she can.
As for those tennis fans who continue to be bandwagon fans, Osaka is a fantastic player.  She has grown not only mentally but also physically.  Her game now has more variety in it that it used to and she is a much fitter player.  I watched her matches in Indian Wells and I thought perhaps she played better because the conditions were slower, but in Miami she was moving fantastically well.
I am a fan of the WTA.  There are some players who I really can’t stomach but all in all I enjoy watching women’s tennis. I find the women to be intriguing and their back stories are inspiring.  If you are just a fan of a player because they have beat a player that you hate, then you need to be a fan of that player when they beat your faves as well.
The amount of vitriol that I saw spewed on social media yesterday breaks my heart.  My only issue that I have with Osaka is that she needs a bit of PR/Media training.  While her acceptance speech at Indian Wells was cute, a friend of mine who was watching the match with me at home and is not a fan of tennis, thought that she was 16.  When I told her that she was 20 she was embarassed for her.
Yesterday after her match, while the reception from the crowd at seeing Serena lose was lukewarm, Osaka’s comments, while endearing, came out as someone being a bit clueless.  She doesn’t need to become a Sharapova well oiled machine, but she should be able to string two sentences together so that they make actual sense.
In Other News
It was great to see Victoria Azarenka back on court.  One can only hope that she will be allowed to travel soon and resume her career full time.  I know that many people have speculated over the issue that Azarenka currently faces regarding the custody battle between herself and her child’s father.  I will only say that the father has rights and deserves to be a part of his child’s life.  Someone needs to make allowances for that.
In this day and age families come in all shapes and sizes.  Many women are the main breadwinners and they pay child support.  It is not a stigma on your life if you do not have primary custody of your child.  It means that you made the best decision for your child.  I don’t see anything wrong in Azarenka coming to some form of agreement with the father of her child which allows her to travel all over the world sans child, or better yet, she has a profession that allows her to choose her tournaments so that she can spend as much time as possible with her son.
It is a hard decision to make and I am sure that someone, somewhere has advised Azarenka accordingly, but she needs to make a decision and in this 21st century it is not about choosing a career or a family.  It is making the right decision that benefits everyone.

Infantilizing Women

The Spin

Why does tennis continue to infantilize women or make them seem as if they are unable to walk and chew gum at the same time?

Why must we continuously have these discussions about women as if they are not strong enough to withstand any and everything?

Why must we be continually defending women who are professionals in their own right with the power to hire and fire as they please, as if they are unable to make decisions for themselves.

I recently had a discussion on social media regarding how we discuss the bodies of female athletes.  I commented that Caroline Dolehide, an aggressive young tennis player either had really big breasts or the tennis kit that she was wearing was so ill fitting as to make her bust seem quite large.  Clearly there were other people who had similar views, most of whom did not express their views in the way or in the manner that I did.  Many,  as they are wont to do focused mainly on the size of her breasts.  That was sexist. Commenting on her physique and her fitness level, the ill fitting kit that she was wearing, was in my opinion fair commentary game, but apparently that is not the case in tennis world.

 Recently Darren Cahill tweeted that women who take a break from the game to start a family should be afforded the opportunity to retain their ranking when they return, or in essence should not be penalized for starting a family.  My question to Mr. Cahill is this, what about the other women who chose to continue their careers and not pause to have a family? Will they not be penalized for losing their ranking when Serena or whomever else returns from maternity leave?  How is that fair to those women?

 It seems as if it is only in tennis that these conversations happen.  Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce, a multiple Olympic gold medalist from Jamaica who was crowned Jamaica and the world’s Sprint Queen took time away from the sport to start a family.  She has just started training again and once she is ready to compete, she  will have to go through the same selection process that everyone who wishes to represent Jamaica has to go through.  If she fails in qualifying to represent Jamaica then she will have to hope that the selection committee looks at her overall record and appoints her to the team, to the detriment of someone who has posted faster times and who has a better chance of medaling.   In that scenario it is not  because the selection committee doesn’t believe in Shelly-Ann’s abilities, but that she didn’t meet the threshold to qualify.  Chances are if Shelly-Ann ends up in that situation, she will not make the cut to compete for Jamaica.

 Serena Williams is playing her very first competitive tournament after being away from the sport for 14 months.  In the match that she played against her sister Venus on Monday night, the rust was quite apparent.  The rust has been apparent from her very first match.  Simona Halep by contrast, the No. 1 player in the world, while she has been frustrated with her game, is hitting a better ball and performing at a higher level than is Serena.  Should we then have relegated Simona Halep, a player who reached the final of the first Grand Slam tournament of the year to a lower seeding just because Serena is back?  Simona seems to think so, but I would suggest that she is only doing so because of the views held by her coach.  Simona’s own thought process as it relates to the equal treatment of female athletes is well known to most of us who follow tennis as she has said in no uncertain terms that the men deserve to be paid more than she does. One wonders if that is also the view of her coach.

 Serena struggled, as was expected.  She faced an opponent who was match tough and whose game, while a bit shaky at times was more nuanced.  Half the time in her match against Venus, Serena was left flat and/or wrong footed.  There is no doubt in mine or anyone else’s mind that Serena will probably get back the No. 1 ranking, but to gift it to her just because she returned from maternity leave is a slap in the face to not only Serena but to all the other women who have worked their asses off to attain a higher ranking.

 Serena currently has an ad out that says there are many ways to be a woman.  I am going to add that one of the ways in which to be a woman is the ability to be able to figure things out for yourself.  Most women will tell you that in order to accomplish some of the greatest things in life they have had to rely on themselves moreso than anyone else.  Neither Serena or Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce or any of the countless professional female athletes in the world need anyone, least of all some administrator to give them something that they themselves can earn.

In an effort to be seen as equitable people seem to be adopting a paternalistic approach to the issues that affect female athletes.  It needs to stop.

Other News
Maria Sharapova has parted ways with her coach Sven Gronefeld.  After a string of disappointing results, the team put out mutually complimentary statements.  While some are hailing Sven for sticking by his charge during her doping suspension, the problem could be as simple as he was being paid to stay around to dispel any negative publicity that his leaving would engender.  Team Sharapova is all about PR optics.
In her statement regarding the parting of ways Sharapova mentioned the fact that she has not been able to get much match rhythm. May I suggest that perhaps Ms. Sharapova should have considered starting at the bottom of the pile to rebuild her game, for example, at the ITF level and then possibly going through qualifying.  Serena Williams played an exhibition match against a young opponent in Dubai to test her match fitness.  She realised at that point that no matter how her head was saying she was ready, her body had a different idea of readiness.
I am interested to see who she chooses next and what they will bring to the table.  For my money I think she should go back to Thomas Hogstedt.  He improved her game tremendously, especially in relation to her footwork and shot selection.  He brought consistency to her groundstrokes and perfected those aspects of her game (net play etc) that needed improvement.