Today’s women tennis stars are bland, muscular, grunting, insular, robots with no personality
Our last Wimbledon winner unleashes a devastating volley guaranteed to court controversy in the female locker rooms
02:16 GMT, 10 June 2012
Virginia Wade pictured holding up her Wimbledon trophy after winning the tournament in 1977
It was a day I’ll never forget: July 1, 1977. The year of the Silver Jubilee – and the day I won Wimbledon. Nothing could have prepared me for the euphoria of claiming the title.
My single greatest regret is not realising quite what a momentous time it really was. The crowd was electric and, with their terrific support behind each swing, I beat Dutch player Betty Stove.
Not only was I the first female British tennis player in eight years to win Wimbledon (since Ann Jones in 1969), but I was also part of an exciting generation of women tennis players who were never fully appreciated at the time.
These women not only played interesting games but they had interesting things to say off court.
It was a time when fierce personal rivalries and big personalities dominated the courts, games were charged with electricity and fans were hooked.
And even though there is still huge interest in tennis today, what a difference there is on the women’s courts.
We’re lucky if our women players say anything illuminating, just a grunt while hitting the ball.
Their personalities are reined in by mollycoddling entourages. What’s left are muscular powerhouses, bred to slam balls between baselines with all the power they can muster.
They’re taught to treat tennis parties like business meetings. Their personalities are probably interesting underneath, but to spectators they’re racket-wielding robots.
No wonder women’s tennis has become somewhat predictable.
Virginia Wade attacks players like Serena Williams and her sister Venus for transforming the sport into a competition about physical strength
There are two reasons for this.
Firstly, the games have become far less interesting to watch.
But, secondly and more importantly, women’s tennis lacks personality – which makes the players seem dull and disappointing.
The problem of the games becoming less interesting to watch began during the mid-Nineties, when the enormously talented Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, raised the power bar.
They are so physically strong that many other girls felt the only way to beat them was to be just as forceful.
From a multi-layered game of technical prowess, mental agility and power, women’s tennis became a muscle match. Endless balls are now smacked from baseline to baseline using brute strength.
Take Belarusian tennis star Victoria Azarenka, the current world No 1. Even during the off-season, she spends two hours in the gym each day followed by a rigorous regime of hill sprints.
Virginia Wade pictured here in 2010, says today's female tennis stars lack the personality of previous generations
Enthralling as Serena and Venus Williams’s matches were ten years ago, the repetitiveness of power tennis has become dull.
Yet this is only half of the story. Power tennis could be enthralling if we really knew and cared about the players.
Nowhere is this clearer than at the French Open, which finishes today.
There have been fabulous matches, but no matter how astonishing the encounter between top seed Azarenka and Slovakian underdog Dominika Cibulkova – who knocked her out of the tournament in the fourth round – few people knew enough about these talented young women to really care.
Anna Kournikova is more famous for her modelling and dating Enrique Iglesias than her game
To catch our attention, we need their personalities to shine too. It doesn’t matter whether they are shy or talkative, as long as they have something interesting to say – or an intense dynamic to capture our attention.
No one could forget the colourful personality of Billie Jean King, who won 12 Grand Slams with her legendary right arm.
She was as memorable off court, campaigning for the equality of women in sport, as she was on it.
Or even more intriguing, the compelling rivalry between all-American, sunny Chris Evert and hard-muscled, emotionless Czechoslovakian Martina Navratilova, with foundations rooted in friendship.
On the court, their matches were unfailingly dramatic, the tension ramped up by cursing, slapped thighs and spontaneous bursts of tears.
But it was their unlikely friendship that captivated audiences.
It was even the subject of a stirring documentary called Unmatched, made two years ago by US TV network ESPN – decades after they retired, their complex relationship still gripped the American nation.
Steffi Graf and Monica Seles grabbed the attention of tennis fans with similar rivalry in the Nineties.
Relationships such as these are rare but, in my generation, everyone spent time together away from the games – which added another dimension to the matches.
Today, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are both great rivals and respectful, but dynamics like this are difficult to forge, particularly among women.
Most live in cocooned worlds, surrounded by tight-knit entourages with little opportunity to mix with other players in the same way we did.
Parties and social events are few and far between, and any socialising that is permitted tends to revolve around these insular entourages.
Every calorie and hour is mapped out by their teams, leaving little room for the player’s individuality to surface.
BUT PLAYERS LINE UP TO BACK SHARAPOVA AND HER RIVALS
Former British No 1 Jo Durie believes Virginia Wade’s broadside on the current women’s game is unjustified.
Miss Durie, 51, who starred in the mid-Eighties, said: ‘Virginia’s criticism would have been appropriate about a year ago, but recently I think the game’s got a bit more interesting.
‘Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova met in the final of the Porsche Tennis GP in Stuttgart recently – and the shoulder bump and looks they gave each other at changeovers were marvellous.
It was real rivalry and back to the old days.’
And Jeremy Bates, 49, former British men’s No 1 and current coach to Britain’s women’s No 1, Anne Keothavong, added: ‘With the greatest respect to Virginia for what she has achieved, I think it’s completely unnecessary for former players to criticise the current crop.
‘It’s a business nowadays and some players need a large support team.
‘And Maria Sharapova undoubtedly has an aura – so does Serena Williams.’
However, John Lloyd, 57, another ex-British No 1, reckons Ms Wade is right.
‘Where are today’s superstars’ he asked.
‘There are few in women’s tennis – and no rivalries for the public to care about.
‘British fans used to look forward to Evert’s battles with Navratilova. Their rivalry was like a TV soap.’
When Martina Navratilova played during the Eighties, she brought a new level of fitness into women’s tennis. Even male players took notice of her diet plan and fitness regime when she began to dominate the courts.
Ivan Lendl revised his own fitness regime, inspired by her. Yet there’s no room for this sort of trailblazing today.
The crux of the problem, though, is advertising and marketing. This is the one way fans can really get to know players outside the tennis circuit.
Men seem to do tremendously well at this. Sport, unfortunately, is still a male domain so there are far more roles open to them, just as there are in Hollywood films.
Loath as I am to admit it, men are also infinitely better at networking and putting themselves across well during these appearances.
Women tend to be more conscious about their appearance, which can make them seem stiffer.
Add to this the fact that there are fewer campaigns for them and perhaps it’s not surprising we know them less.
What’s dangerous is the impact that this publicity can have on their game if mismanaged.
Put bluntly, for a male player to be offered a large campaign or photoshoot, he tends to be highly talented on court.
But for a female player to be awarded a campaign, she needs charisma and stunning looks.
It’s not surprising, then, that the female players with the right ingredients tend to be the youngest ones, many of whom are early in their careers and dangerously unprepared for the limelight.
Take Daniela Hantuchova, the former world No 5 who was taken by surprise when she found herself in the spotlight for her looks rather than her tennis.
Perhaps that’s what made her concentration suffer and triggered her bad losing streak in 2003, just four years after she turned professional.
Anna Kournikova also managed to forge a successful career on her looks – but achieved very little on the court.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some exciting players today, there are – Maria Sharapova, Sam Stosur and Sara Errani. Even so, they need more consistent success to really appeal to fans.
It could be that tennis changes in waves.
In the Eighties, women’s tennis peaked with Evert and Navratilova on the courts.
And men’s tennis fell a little flat when Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi retired.
If that’s the case, it could soon swing back the other way.
But that’s little comfort to former female champions who feel that our legacy has been squandered.
To reincarnate that golden age, we need a new generation of ground-breaking players with substance – women who will bring not only talent to the courts, but personality too.