Anand Mamidipudi — Tennis With An Accent
Close your eyes. Imagine a juicy, bright red strawberry. The strawberry is lying on the lime green center court in Wimbledon, unblemished and carefree, Nobody knows how it came to be there. You’re sitting in the front row, surrounded by fans, and they are all oblivious to the sight of the innocuous strawberry. They are watching the match instead; it is this year’s Wimbledon final. The first two sets have been split. History awaits the winner.
Meanwhile, your eyes are transfixed on the poor little strawberry. It has somehow miraculously survived two entire sets without being squished to pulp. You have half a mind to jump onto the court during a changeover and save it, but that would probably get you arrested. A serve lands perilously close to the blessed fruit, but it remains intact and you breathe a deep sigh.
I want you to imagine the entire scene. The blue sky, the delicate green grass, the clock-like bounce of the ball before the serve, the alternating grunts of the players, the quiet buzz of the crowd while the rally is on, the pitter-patter of footsteps, the “thwock” of a pass, the scream of the line judge, and the solemn voice of the umpire keeping score. All this, and one fortunate strawberry living on the edge of the deuce court.
Enough about the strawberry now. I now want you to focus your attention on the two players. Imagine their faces. They are both on the cusp of doing something special in their own way. They have both trained hard for this moment. Their abilities may be mismatched in the end, but their dreams are equal. You hardly know anything about them as people, but you feel a certain kinship towards one, and a mild resentment towards the other already. You don’t know why. Maybe it is because you don’t like rigid backhands. Maybe you are the kind of person who builds a random affinity with something, and stays loyal to your choice for decades.
It is now match point. The strawberry has survived the ordeal thus far despite several close shaves. The final rally begins – a serve out wide (a couple of feet away from the fruit), a flat forehand cross-court return, and then… a deadly drop shot. You see a furious slide towards the net, even as the ball defies gravity to linger just a little longer in the air. Alas, the slide is in vain and the match is over! You are disappointed because you were rooting for the loser. That last fateful slide turned the strawberry into a red blotch on the soft green grass.
What if I told you now that the winner of this match was Ane Mintegi Del Olmo. Who? That’s right, we’re talking about this year’s Wimbledon junior champion from Spain, the first ever junior from the country to win the girls’ event despite their illustrious history. She came back from a set down to beat 17 year old Nastasja Schunk from Germany. It was a match filled with drama and brilliant points. This was a consequential result. Unlike the men’s tour, girls’ champions do go on to win the main event too (see Barty).
I know you feel this deep sense of subterfuge in this essay so far. What was that whole thing about the strawberry? What was the point of the grand reveal about Del Olmo?
Here’s the thing. When I asked you to imagine the faces of the two finalists, and I tried this experiment on a few of my co-workers, most people imagined Djokovic and Berrettini. A couple said Barty (“and the other girl”). This thought experiment works best with a distraction, in this case the mythical strawberry. Try it yourself.
The notion of tennis being a male sport was intrinsically tied to their subconscious. Corporate America’s HR folks have latched on to a new buzzword, “unconscious bias”. Not everyone exhibits unconscious bias to the same degree (this is for you, dear reader, who is vehemently insisting that you don’t carry such a bias, and were in fact imagining Barty-Pliskova), but research has shown that most share this tendency to create social stereotypes despite their best intentions. Gender bias is one such bias, and it can be argued that it is widely prevalent in tennis. Tennis is still sadly male first, and the women are an afterthought.
Dial back a month to the Naomi Osaka saga at Roland Garros. Much hullabaloo was made of a fragile person crying out for help, asking to be anonymous, so that she could instead focus on what she was good at. There are men on the tour with similarly fragile mental states, who are deliberately tanking matches. Osaka suffered worse than the likes of Benoit Paire because she is a woman. She was critiqued for the nature of her actions, her motives, her timing, but not once was she given the benefit of doubt that a person in her state should always get. When the Grand Slam committee came down upon her with a heavy hand, there was suddenly a wave of sympathy all-around, like Osaka was a young child that needed to be protected. We even saw the great Billie Jean King modify her stance on Osaka overnight. The question you have to ask is, if Osaka were not a woman (a confident, expressive and charismatic one at that), would she first be criticized, and then subsequently be mollycoddled? She likely wanted neither from us. Osaka being absent from the biggest tournament in this sport should continue to be its biggest story. It would be if, say, Nadal had decided to skip Wimbledon in order to deal with mental issues.
Gender bias is all pervasive.
Novak Djokovic opened play on Day 1 at this Wimbledon against young Jack Draper. Ash Barty opened the proceedings on Day 2, not without controversy, because some felt Serena Williams deserved it more. Truth is, both women may have gotten a raw deal by being relegated to Day 2. Djokovic also got to close out the tournament with the last singles match. Barty went the day before like she was the cover band to the real show on Sunday. It has always been this way. We now have equal prize money for both winners, but there is still an unconscious bias at play here in deciding who gets to play first.
This isn’t a tennis thing, of course. Oscars announce Best Actress before Best Actor, like one somehow logically leads to the other. Before Kamala Harris, there was no such thing as “second gentleman”. In tennis, we still have a long way to go in the Open Era before there is real parity between the genders.
Some may argue that Wimbledon’s order of play simply follows a time-bound tradition, like many other rituals and codes that add to the aura and mystique of this great event. But tradition must never come in the way of righting the wrongs. The Augusta National Golf club, once exclusively-male in its membership, woke up to their follies in 2012 and welcomed women into their fold (a small step, but a giant leap for womankind). Tennis already has greater parity than golf, but Wimbledon (and other Grand Slams) can make a definitive statement by playing the women’s final on Sundays every alternate year. They could put Barty on their webpage next to Djokovic, hire more female umpires, and even possibly elect a female President to replace the departing Duke of Kent. There’s just so much more that can be done, without impacting the traditions that make Wimbledon special. You can have your strawberries and cream, and eat them too. It only takes the right intent to create the right outcomes.
The women’s tournament this year was arguably more entertaining than the men’s side. There were many dramatic finishes throughout the tournament, precocious young players like Gauff and Raducanu shone brightly, two grand slam champions played out a classic in the fourth round, a cancer survivor gave the world number 1 all she could handle in the first round, and ultimately the final four were a worthy set of players who were ranked 1 or 2 at some point. The final itself was unpredictable, dictated often by ebbs and flows from an enigmatic shotmaker, Karolina Pliskova. Barty surfed through the Pliskovian waves expertly and emerged holding the Venus Rosewater dish. Her victory was a touching tribute to the legendary Evonne Goolagong.
Barty’s win should have been a fitting end to the tournament. It wasn’t. Time for a changeover.