July 11, 2015

Top women tennis players balance body image with ambition: "Williams said that one particular long-sleeved garment would help her go unnoticed in public. “My arms are really fit, but I wanted to cover them, because when I do people don’t recognize me as much,” she said. [......] “It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10,” said Tomasz Wiktorowski, the coach of Agnieszka Radwanska, who is listed at 5 feet 8 and 123 pounds. “Because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.”

posted by rumple to tennis at 11:54 AM - 22 comments

I have trouble believing that any of the top women's tennis players would forego muscle building if they thought it would help their game. These are hyper-competitive athletes near the pinnacle of an entire sport. While looking good might be a goal, they're going to think the best-looking body is the one hoisting the trophy.

posted by rcade at 01:39 PM on July 11

I wish I had more trouble believing it, but such is our world today.

posted by Etrigan at 01:55 PM on July 11

I wonder whether a bulky muscular build would help in tennis. The top five fastest serves among the women in 2015 were struck by Serena Williams, Denisa Allertova, Sabine Lisicki, Caroline Garcia and Polona Hercog. Aside from Williams they're all lanky with strong legs but a slim upper build.

Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic are playing the men's final tomorrow and both of them are almost thin enough to be described as slight of build.

The quote from Radwanska's coach is interesting. She's reached one Wimbledon Final and almost reached another this year. Maybe being the smallest player in the top 10 ought to be less of a focus than reaching that last rung to win a major.

posted by rcade at 05:20 PM on July 11

Maybe being the smallest player in the top 10 ought to be less of a focus than reaching that last rung to win a major.

Why? If she'd prefer to be small than a champion, who is anyone to tell her that she should have other goals?

posted by dfleming at 05:40 PM on July 11

Do you think Radwanska or any other top female tennis player will look back on her playing days and think "I'm glad I was the smallest woman in the top 10"? My guess is that attaching "Wimbledon winner" to your name forever would mean more.

Accepting what her coach said about her priorities is like cutting your favorite team's best player some slack after hearing that the highlight of his season is appearing in the ESPN Magazine body issue.

Sure we could give them slack -- we are beautiful snowflakes, one and all -- but realistically what fan likes to hear that when the team keeps coming close to a championship and falling short?

posted by rcade at 05:52 PM on July 11

As far as speed on the service goes, it is much the same as in golf. A long lever arm will mean a higher racquet speed in tennis or a higher club head speed in golf. It has nothing at all to do with build, beyond maintaining flexibility and good strength. I believe having too muscular an upper body could actually decrease flexibility, thereby decreasing swing speed.

posted by Howard_T at 10:46 PM on July 11

Do you think Radwanska or any other top female tennis player will look back on her playing days and think "I'm glad I was the smallest woman in the top 10"? My guess is that attaching "Wimbledon winner" to your name forever would mean more.

Do you think Anna Kournikova, who made $3.5m on the WTA and has an estimated net worth of $50m today, is really upset at her life choices and what kind of life they've given her?

Sure we could give them slack -- we are beautiful snowflakes, one and all -- but realistically what fan likes to hear that when the team keeps coming close to a championship and falling short?

That's exactly the perspective that a variety of 49ers fans felt this season about the various players retiring before their time - to which I say, if what fans want are win-at-all-costs robot players without concern for their broader selves or what makes them happy, those fans are dicks.

posted by dfleming at 10:34 AM on July 12

Do you think Anna Kournikova, who made $3.5m on the WTA and has an estimated net worth of $50m today, is really upset at her life choices and what kind of life they've given her?

I think Kournikova would like to have been more successful on the court, yes. She has said in interviews that it bothered her to be treated like she was famous for her looks instead of her play.

Here's a quote from her in 2008: "In a perfect world, would I have won a tournament? Yes. But I wasn't able to string those matches together. Sometimes I got unlucky, and sometimes I just lost. Regrets? Not a thing. Except to be a little stronger physically."

(She did, for the record, win 16 tournaments in doubles and was world No. 1 in that sport in 1999.)

That's exactly the perspective that a variety of 49ers fans felt this season about the various players retiring before their time -- to which I say, if what fans want are win-at-all-costs robot players without concern for their broader selves or what makes them happy, those fans are dicks.

I didn't think we were debating whether to win at all costs.

I thought we were debating whether to win at the cost of not being the smallest top player to emphasize your feminine attractiveness.

posted by rcade at 04:31 PM on July 12

Here's a quote from her in 2008: "In a perfect world, would I have won a tournament? Yes. But I wasn't able to string those matches together. Sometimes I got unlucky, and sometimes I just lost. Regrets? Not a thing. Except to be a little stronger physically."

That quote fully validates my perspective - which is that yes, she might've like to win more as a solo tennis player, but ultimately she doesn't regret the approach she took to life.

I thought we were debating whether to win at the cost of not being the smallest top player to emphasize your feminine attractiveness.

Sure, but take the Williams sisters, who've externally to the sport received a ton of criticism for their lack of femininity. The reality for big female stars (more so than male stars) is they are expected to be dominant in their sport and then turn on a dime and be presentable and attractive women off the court at galas, on the cover of magazines, etc. So I don't fault a woman for prioritizing her looks as one part of what matters to her as a woman, not to mention as a broader way for her to maximize the revenue in a short career as a public sports figure.

posted by dfleming at 11:25 AM on July 13

Sure, but take the Williams sisters, who've externally to the sport received a ton of criticism for their lack of femininity.

Yes, Serena Williams takes flak from cavemen. But despite that, she has managed to be one of the physically strongest players in her sport and still be a fashion icon. It shows that Radwanska's attitude is foolish, if her coach is relating her thoughts accurately. Strong and feminine are not mutually exclusive.

She is 26 and close to greatness. That window will close in a few years and she can have the rest of her life to prioritize her looks. It's not like she'd no longer be good looking with some more muscles on her frame.

That quote fully validates my perspective ...

I think you're reading it to suit your opinion. Find me a quote where Kournikova says she values money and celebrity over her on-court success and I'll be persuaded.

posted by rcade at 11:41 AM on July 13

She says, specifically, she has no regrets except to be a little stronger physically, which could either mean pure strength or a reaction to the fact her body's injuries cut her career shorter than it could've been.

But if you want quotes on the mix of things that Anna believed:

"I hate my muscles. I'm not Venus Williams. I'm not Serena Williams, I don't want to look like they do. I'm not masculine like they are."

"A court is like a scene, people want to see attractive people."

"I think that tennis is a lady's sport, so we should look out there like ladies."

"I am beautiful, famous and gorgeous."

I'm not trying to mind-read for her, but it's pretty clear that tennis was one of a number of top-line values that she operated under. It sounds pretty clear that looking like the Williams sisters, even as she watched how successful they made her, was not something she remotely considered for aesthetic reasons regardless of whether it made her a better tennis player.

posted by dfleming at 12:01 PM on July 13

Her comments do reek of sour grapes though (she was a loser relative to them), and the context of the book chapter you link is anti-Williams racist attitudes, so this might well be a case of Kournikova "othering" the Williams sisters.

posted by rumple at 12:22 PM on July 13

If those quotes are legit, I think we're seeing a reason why Kournikova didn't achieve as much as she would've liked in single's tennis. "I hate my muscles" nicely captures a top athlete who limited her own success with a counterproductive attitude.

Williams and Kournikova were born three months apart, so there's likely an element of jealousy in Kournikova's ugly comments. One of them is a retired also-ran in singles while the other is still the best in that sport and probably the best ever.

posted by rcade at 01:16 PM on July 13

The "I hate my muscles" quote is cited to 2005, when Kournikova was in the prime of her career. I agree it's jealousy, but not the retrospective kind, it comes from a time when she could have done something about it - at least experimented with her fitness levels and training to see if she could improve.

posted by rumple at 01:41 PM on July 13

If those quotes are legit, I think we're seeing a reason why Kournikova didn't achieve as much as she would've liked in single's tennis. "I hate my muscles" nicely captures a top athlete who limited her own success with a counterproductive attitude.

Or one who wanted as much success as her particular preferred body image would allow, which is again why I question who any of us are to determine whether or not someone's perspective on their own body is reasonable or not, particularly in the context of the unique dual role that women are expected to play in sports vs. those men are.

Women are expected to walk the red carpet as athletes, but then get criticized for being too into it. A singularly-focused life is not necessarily a model for happiness for everyone, and it's quite possible after nearly your whole youth being consumed by a sport that some want some variety - and for Kournikova, or Radwanska, that variety might include a particular body that demonstrably society aesthetically prefers and pays handsomely for.

posted by dfleming at 03:12 PM on July 13

What's the equivalent in a male sport? A swimmer not shaving his body despite knowing they will lose 5/100 of a second? It's more or less unthinkable. Maybe some of the golfers who could be more fit, but then, they aren't really schlubbing off to enhance their looks.

The double standard for women is real enough. Change comes from both directions - (men) appreciate female athletic dominance however it looks; (women) don't leave anything on the red carpet?

Another factor here is the relatively revealing uniforms women often wear. If Serena had baggy shorts and men's tennis shorts her physique would be a lot less noticeable. Of course from her perspective, her physique may in fact be intimidating and a competitive advantage.

posted by rumple at 03:45 PM on July 13

Lots of basketball forwards and centers to some degree get criticized for not bulking up after college. This would also be true in hockey and is a reason why a bunch of first-rounders never make it to the prime-time - not strong enough.

They either decide their body is the one they want or believe they can overcome a deficit in bulk through other means. I guess some people might not be able to bulk up as well.

A number of baseball players have been criticized for being fat even if they perform at a decent level (see: the Fielders, Pablo Sandoval. Kirby Puckett, Manny Ramirez, etc.) The idea being their physical form is leaving something on the table.

I don't know of any who held a particular aesthetic desire as the reason they do it, but I'm also not sure that kind of question gets asked to male athletes as much as focus on the body of the athlete is a routine question for women.

posted by dfleming at 04:09 PM on July 13

... why I question who any of us are to determine whether or not someone's perspective on their own body is reasonable or not ...

Athletes like Radwanska make millions off our interest in them. I find it strange you think there should be a wall around her coach's statement about keeping her small as if it's unfair to scrutinize or criticize the attitude it embodies.

The decision to keep her small directly relates to her performance on the court. Her tennis coach is talking about a decision he made with her. This wasn't a personal issue unrelated to tennis.

In a foreign-language interview translated in April, her coach was asked, "Agnieszka can't grow any taller but she can develop stronger muscles, and recently she's lost some weight, too much even."

He responded, "It is a problem We talk with Agnieszka about it all the time. That's all I can say."

So there are concerns about her being too small and it affecting the quality of her performances -- voiced by the same coach who just proclaimed she's small by their choice.

... that variety might include a particular body that demonstrably society aesthetically prefers and pays handsomely for.

You seem to be buying into the idea that a top female athlete (in arguably the most popular women's sport) can settle for less athletic success to pursue money and fame from being hot. Nobody tells men it's cool to do that.

Can you imagine the reaction if Tom Brady's personal trainer said he was the smallest elite quarterback by choice so that he'd be more marketable?

I feel like you're the one imposing a dual role on female athletes. I am judging Radwanska the same way I'd judge a male tennis player whose coach made a looks-first, tennis-second comment. She's a fantastic player on the cusp of greatness. I've become a fan due to the guile and talent she shows in her Wimbledon performances. I'd like to see her win the event before the window slams shut on her.

posted by rcade at 04:12 PM on July 13

You seem to be buying into the idea that a top female athlete (in arguably the most popular women's sport) can settle for less athletic success to pursue money and fame from being hot. Nobody tells men it's cool to do that.

I am "buying" into the notion that I think it's pretty inappropriate for a man to go ahead and suggest that a woman is "settling" for what her own stated preferences are.

I feel like you're the one imposing a dual role on female athletes.

If you think I've invented pressures that female athletes have to deal with that male ones do not that cause them to have to consider things like their femininity in addition to their skill, I feel like there's no point in continuing this discussion.

posted by dfleming at 04:47 PM on July 13

I am "buying" into the notion that I think it's pretty inappropriate for a man to go ahead and suggest that a woman is "settling" for what her own stated preferences are.

Dragging my gender into this is weird. Her male coach made a comment to the New York Times in a prominent article on Wimbledon championship weekend and I'm scrutinizing it.

If you think I've invented pressures that female athletes have to deal with that male ones do not that cause them to have to consider things like their femininity in addition to their skill, I feel like there's no point in continuing this discussion.

I didn't say you invented those pressures, but to at least a small degree, your position seems to be perpetuating them.

My position: A top female athlete should put her on-court success first and reject the idea she must avoid muscles to look feminine.

Yours: We shouldn't be critical of a top female athlete for valuing a body "society aesthetically prefers" at the possible expense of on-court success.

Which one of those positions is putting more pressure on a woman to consider her femininity in addition to skill?

To ask it another way, would you want a 12-year-old female tennis phenom to read the article and decide that developing a muscular physique would mean she's not feminine?

I'd rather have female athletes believe they can be as muscular as they need to be to succeed in their sport and be no less a woman for it. Male athletes don't worry about that shit. Females shouldn't either.

P.s. Is anyone else jazzed by a contentious debate taking place here over tennis?

posted by rcade at 05:22 PM on July 13

Female athletes often face the femininity police -- especially Serena Williams

These particular insults, especially when lobbed at black women, are difficult to see as anything other than racist, especially given their history as ways to denigrate the womanhood and sexuality of black women. But, Williams isn't the first female athlete to endure this treatment; she isn't even the first tennis player. It's common for women athletes especially when they win to be derided as something other than women.

When Dominika Cibulkova lost to Sam Stosur back in 2012, she repeatedly stated that playing Stosur was "like playing a man". Amelie Mauresmo, former tennis dynamo, received flak about her sexuality, her gender and her physique. Martina Navratilova, widely regarded as one of the greatest tennis players of all time, was constantly derided as looking manly. And, when 6'8" WBNA athlete Brittney Griner showed off her dunking skills, she too was called "a man". Griner's response to the criticism? "Hey, that's my body, and I look the way I look."

Track and field athletes, soccer players, basketball players, tennis players, you name it: in any sport in which a woman has to actually train to be a formidable competitor, and has a physique that reflects that, you'll find discussion of their reputed sexual desirability (or supposed lack thereof) permeating the conversation.

posted by rumple at 01:36 PM on July 14

That link is fantastic. I'm glad at least one journalist flagged the comment by Radwanska's coach for the terrible attitude that it signifies.

posted by rcade at 09:23 AM on July 15

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