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Women’s tennis faces a “1979 moment”

Matt Zemek

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Jimmie 48 Photography

After Roland Garros 2019, this is the first and most important point: Women’s tennis remains in a great place strictly in terms of the quality of the product. Women’s tennis doesn’t need saving if you are a tennis fan or observer. The sport itself, on the court, is giving die-hard tennis fans — true tennis junkies — a great journey.

I have said it before and will say it again: Sometimes in tennis, a tour is weak to the point that the winners or finalists at a tournament are crowned simply because someone has to be. Few eras of tennis history — especially in the Open Era — embody this reality better than the late 1990s and early 2000s in men’s tennis.

No offense intended, but Arnaud Clement and Rainer Schuettler lost more singles matches than they won in their careers, and they made major finals in the early 2000s. That was a time in ATP history when variety and unpredictability were the products of mediocrity.

It is not nearly the same with the WTA right now.

This is a product of depth, balance and quality.

Naomi Osaka played Victoria Azarenka in the second round of Roland Garros. Garbine Muguruza played Sloane Stephens — one major champion against another — in the fourth round. Muguruza played Elina Svitolina in the third round. Amanda Anisimova met Aryna Sabalenka in the first week at a second consecutive major.

WTA draws at majors are LOADED these days. Players should consider themselves fortunate if they can get two relatively uncomplicated matches. Beginning in the round of 32, one should expect tricky matchups.

Unpredictability, parity, variety, fresh faces, everyone has a chance — women’s tennis is the antithesis of the Big 3-dominant ATP side at the majors, giving tennis something new yet not sacrificing quality for it. This is great.

Women’s tennis doesn’t need saving if you value quality of product. Period.

Yet, there is an element of complexity here which merits a larger discussion.

Let’s start here:

The disparity in terms of raw dollars/Euros isn’t the main point. A total of roughly 65,000 Euros is not an earth-shattering amount of money. What is more conspicuous — and problematic — is that ATP purses are often 2.5 to 3.5 times as much as WTA purses at the same levels of competition: 250 versus an International, or a 500 versus a Premier. Sometimes, an ATP 250 is almost as lucrative as a WTA Premier, even though the Premier is a much higher level of competition and point value.

The product of women’s tennis is great… but ATP tennis carries more economic clout right now. The problem is not that the ATP has more money to offer. The problem is that the disparity between the way in which women are treated and the men are treated at various tournaments — including the majors — is substantial.

The past Roland Garros tournament was a perfect example, with the women playing zero semifinals on Chatrier and the men playing both, the women relegated to 11 a.m. starts and the men getting prime slots. The women’s final was delayed, the men’s final was not. The women’s finalists had to play their final one day after their semifinals. Ash Barty had to play the quarters, semis and final on three straight days. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had two-day breaks between their quarterfinal and semifinal matches. Nadal had a day off between his semifinal and final.

Women’s tennis doesn’t need saving in terms of the quality of the product.

The quality of the product, however, deserves to be respected a lot more than it currently is.

I have made no secret of the reality that if major tournaments are going to be scheduled better and more fairly for the women, the key is to eliminate men’s quarterfinals on Tuesday of the second week. I explained that here. 

I subsequently acknowledged on Twitter that people in the tennis industry have said an all-WTA quarterfinal lineup on Tuesday at the second week of a major would not work, because past experiments have failed. To be very clear, I don’t dispute that the past experiments have failed. I don’t dispute that this will be a tough sell for tennis.

I do, however, think that if we really do value fairness and equality in scheduling at the majors — and in treating the high-quality product of women’s tennis with the respect it deserves — tennis needs to arrive at a point where an all-WTA quarterfinal lineup on Tuesday at the second week of a major can make more financial sense, and be friendlier for TV and tournaments.

In a separate piece, I will argue for a specific reform which can achieve this reality, but here, I will make the case for something separate: the course of events on the court.

Let us ask this simple but important question: If the WTA is to gain economic/TV clout relative to the ATP, what needs to happen ON THE COURT (not in the backrooms where corporate decisions are made) to improve the landscape?

The answer: Rivalries need to catch fire late in majors, or at least at important tournaments.

It was noticeable that Sloane Stephens and Simona Halep played in the 2018 Roland Garros and Montreal finals, playing compelling matches which captured the attention of fans and media alike. When the quality Montreal final followed the Roland Garros final, there was a sense of, “Hey, I can get used to this!”, from more than a few tennis fans.

They haven’t met since that Montreal final.

Similarly, that incredible Petra Kvitova-Naomi Osaka Australian Open final hasn’t been followed by a rematch in recent months.

No, women’s tennis doesn’t need Serena Williams to make every major final the next few weeks. It WOULD be great, but in terms of changing perceptions of the sport among TV networks and decision-makers, such that the women would be treated with more respect, women’s tennis doesn’t need one specific player to become a juggernaut.

Women’s tennis needs familiar matchups in the later rounds of its bigger tournaments.

It can be Halep-Stephens. It can be Osaka-Kvitova. It can be Angelique Kerber and Ashleigh Barty. It can be any number of matchups… but at the last 10 majors, no woman has made more than three semifinal appearances. 24 different players have filled 40 semifinal slots.

Question: Since the start of 2017, which women’s matchups have repeated in major semifinals or finals?

Answer: Stephens-Keys at the 2017 U.S. Open final and 2018 Roland Garros semifinals.

That’s it — that is the ONLY matchup which has repeated over the past 10 majors in the semifinal or final rounds.

This is NOT a reflection of the quality of the actual product of women’s tennis, but it IS a reflection of the parity on tour… which brings me to the title for this piece: a “1979 moment.”

From 1977 through 1979, women’s tennis had separate champions at the four majors. In those three years, no one won more than one major. The quality of play was very good, and Chris Evert was the consistent face late in major tournaments which anchored women’s tennis, but in terms of entertainment buzz, it was obviously going to be better for women’s tennis if a rival emerged for Evert, who was phenomenally consistent at making major semifinals but needed someone else to stick around as an equal adversary.

Tracy Austin came along in 1979 and seemed to be that kind of opponent, but injuries cut short her career in the early 1980s.

Enter Martina Navratilova. The rest is history.

The point wasn’t — and isn’t — that women’s tennis needed Chris Evert to win less in 1979, or that women’s tennis needed someone to beat her. The more precise point is that a RIVALRY needed to give women’s tennis a magnetic quality. Chris and Martina gave that to women’s tennis. When Chris exited, Steffi Graf was there to take the baton. Then Monica Seles replaced Martina and fought Steffi for world supremacy.

The quality of play in the late-1970s world of women’s tennis wasn’t suffering, but we remember the 1980s with honey-soaked nostalgic feelings because a rivalry implanted itself in our memories and our imaginations.

Women’s tennis doesn’t need saving strictly on the basis of its product, but the sport is at a 1979-style moment.

The birth/emergence of a true rivalry in the final stages of big tournaments could give the sport — on the court — the boost it can surely use at a point in time when women are plainly treated as inferiors, both at Roland Garros and at International or Premier tour stops.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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