Motherhood and the construction of women's athletic talent, part II: U.S. Open edition

clijstersOh, yeah!  You know that babies are like catnip to the international media, especially when their mothers are winning, world-class athletes! 

Last year during the Olympics, regarding the spate of stories about Darra Torres and other women athletes with children, I wrote about my bafflement about the ways in which women athletes who are mothers are represented in the media.  I asked, “Why does anyone think that motherhood necessarily erodes or competes with athletic talent?  Of course, not every mother physically gives birth to her children, but even for those who do, childbirth and its aftermath doesn’t necessarily alter the body in ways that would affect athletic performance.”  Well, the Mother-Athlete of the Year has to be Kim Clijsters, whose surprise upset (on faults) at the U.S. Open against Serena Williams has put her in the spotlight.  Once again, the English-language media find it utterly amazing that a 26-year old (26!) who has given birth can win the U.S. Open.

None of the broadcast or print media stories I’ve seen about Clijsters has failed to note that 1) she’s “a mom!” (or “mum!”), and 2) she had retired from tennis to focus on getting married and having a family.  (Never mind that that’s what a lot of people do, in addition to their day jobs, and that male athletes seem to manage getting married and having lots of children without “taking time off”–like Clijsters’s husband, Bryan Lynch!)  I understand the attraction of a comeback story, but this article from the Australian News really takes the cake.  It doesn’t even mention Williams’s name, let alone anything about Clijsters’s victorious match against her.  Check it out:

SUPER-mum Kim Clijsters hopes to complete some unfinished business in Australia after crowning her amazing comeback with a spectacular US Open triumph.

While unsure exactly how long her second career will last, Clijsters says a return to Melbourne Park in January for the 2010 Australian Open is definitely on her jam-packed agenda.

“I mean, my sister is about to have a baby in a couple of weeks and those are really important moments that I want to be home for,” the bubbly Belgian said. 

.       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .      

The Melbourne grand slam was Clijsters’ last major tournament in 2007 before her 27-month “retirement” to get married and start a family with former US basketballer Bryan Lynch.

Cradling the US Open trophy in one arm and 18-month-old daughter Jada Ella in the other, Clijsters says she’s proud if she’s provided a message for mothers the world around with her astonishing feat in New York.

“If I inspired them, great,” she said after becoming the first mother since Australian great Evonne Goolagong Cawley at Wimbledon in 1980 – and only the third in the 41-year Open era – to win a grand slam.
.       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .      
“It’s not that I thought like I’ll never play tennis again. I just didn’t think about it. I just didn’t look at it as an option for me,” two two-time Open champion said.

“There were so many things going on with the wedding and I was pregnant and I was breastfeeding and everything.
.       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .      
“I feel very lucky that I got this chance to be back here now and that I made that decision because it’s obviously been a good choice.

“But, again, being a mother is obviously my first priority, and being a wife.”

Obviously?  I guess that’s something only a winner can say–because if a loser said that, it would appear to be all too true that she wasn’t focused on her tennis!  I realize that the “I’m a wife and mother first” story line is something that Clijsters herself is pushing–but I don’t wonder that the media is so eager to seize upon this narrative.  Perhaps Clijsters is choosing to talk this way so as to play up to the traditional expectations we have of women–and perhaps she made the calculation that her motherhood would be a constant in any stories about her anyway. 

At least we don’t have to worry about Clijsters being too butch.  (As Knitting Clio pointed out in response to my original post, the fear that competitive women athletes were lesbian has a long and storied history.)  What I wouldn’t give to see her have a John McEnroe moment that would match Williams’s last weekend, verbal blow by verbal blow.  Now that would be awesome!  Not to mention a frankly realistic aspect of motherhood.

0 thoughts on “Motherhood and the construction of women's athletic talent, part II: U.S. Open edition

  1. I wonder what it means that her marriage and child are her “first priority”. As in, I do endless stuff for my child and don’t practice? I don’t think so. But if something important was happening to her husband or child, that takes priority over tennis? Probably.

    This has been so weird. She’s a tennis player. She knows her child — and hopefully her marriage — will outlast her tennis career.


  2. I wonder too at the news media dubbing her a “Super-mum,” when she’s doing what a lot of women do around the globe who have a lot fewer resources than Clijsters and Lynch.

    I really admire her athletic talent, and I don’t buy for a minute that she’s not training obsessively. That’s how you get to where she is–there’s no other way. (But I realize too that the “Cinderella Story” is a classic genre of sports writing–it’s more exciting and interesting to write about an “amazing comeback” or a “surprise win” by a previously low-ranked team or competitor than it is to acknowledge the hard work, training, and strategy that went into the win. It’s more appealing to foster the notion of the miracle win.)


  3. I think you may be critiquing the wrong part of this story. That she is the first mom to win Wimbledon in 29 years means it is a very rare and therefore notable thing. That she did it after more than two years away from competitive tennis is also rare and notable. While motherhood rarely alters the body permanently, time off competitive play usually does. Athletes, male and female alike, will tell you that working out is no substitute for working out + regular competition. The comeback angle here is real and does not downplay at all the work she did to get back into playing top tennis.

    Instead, I think the real issue here is the expectation that a top female athlete who has a child is expected to retire and give up her career.


  4. To me, this article reads like a version of those appalling celebrity news items about how fast! such-and-such actress was able to get her “hot body” back after having a child (this is a really disturbing trend in the media – making it seem like a realistic and laudable goal for women to jump off the delivery table and start dieting and exercising. Like Sarah Palin and her “three days” off following the birth of her last child). While I think Colonial’s point is a good one, that’s not really how these articles are reading. They sound more like: Can you believe it?! Isn’t it amazing?! Mothers can accomplish things! [As long as they make long protracted statements apologizing for their accomplishments and making sure every one in the world knows that their family comes first! I don’t know if you’ve noticed the number of times women with children who are successful are forced to make these kinds of statements.]


  5. I agree with both Colonial and perpetua. My first reaction to the story was, “Holy crap, there’s only been 3 mothers to win Wimbledon?” Part of that is that age of many tennis players, many of whom are younger and therefore not likely to have children. But the other part is that I don’t think playing pro sports is like most other jobs that working mothers do. There’s a lot more travel involved, long workout sessions, etc. I’d guess it’s pretty intense. Comparable maybe to a CEO or other executive. So I think that turns a lot of mothers off, just as high level corporate jobs do.

    I also think that perpetua’s right on the storyline that she feels she has to tout, that her family comes first.


  6. I’ve been wondering whether or not you would do a post on this, ever since I heard the “breaking news” about the “super mom.” I wonder what this “retirement” actually means. If she did in fact spend 2 years tending for her child 24/7 with no domestic help whatsoever, I will be impressed. But my guess is that she was able to continue to at least train during the day, making the come-back somewhat less spectacular. Which really makes her just like so many other mothers who have children while continuing to juggle professional responsibilities, though forced to cut back temporarily. Suggesting that she completely removed herself from the sport is essentially a way to emphasize that things are different for women. No one seemed shocked that Federer continued to compete, in spite of the arrival of twins!

    BTW, I just had my first article published since I “retired” from academia to start my family 2 years ago. Do you think anyone’s going to do a story?


  7. Good points. What Colonial construes as “the real issue” (as if there is only ONE issue?) is probably related to the discourse I discuss in my 2008 post on this, which constructs motherhood as a disability. When motherhood is represented constantly as a disability, and when the sports press remains incredulous that a woman who is a mother wins a match or an olympic medal, no wonder a lot of women athletes may choose to delay or avoid entirely having children.

    I still think that a lot of top women athletes feel they have to demonstrate their non-lesbianism, or at least their non-threatening nature. Invoking her husband and daughter is one way to do this. But of course, we don’t know to what extent Clijsters may have talked about other things in this interview–her comments about her family, her sister’s baby, her wedding and husband, and her daughter might be the only comments that went into this story.


  8. “But, again, being a mother is obviously my first priority, and being a wife.”

    Why obviously? Why do those have the be the top priorities? What about being herself? Being a whole person, not just parts who exist in relation to others? Honestly, those roles are important parts of my life, but this statement feeds into so many assumptions that ought to be examined. Men very rarely say, when they’re interviewed about their achievements, “being a father is obviously my first priority, and being a husband.”

    We’ve all flown on airplanes and heard the standard spiel. If the oxygen mask comes down and you’re travelling with a child, you put yours on first so you’re in a position to help the child. There’s something to be said for women realizing that saying “I’m a mother, first and foremost” or “Being a wife is my number one priority” can be a bit unhealthy. I’ve seen women fall apart, emotionally, when their kid moves out because they’ve wrapped themselves up in the child to the exclusion of other interests and obligations. (I’ve only twice seen that reaction with men.)

    What’s doubly frustrating is that if she hadn’t said this, the media would be all over the story of “Superstar sports mom neglects child!” Because, of course, if you’re not loudly trumpeting your child as your top priority, you cannot be a good mother, now, can you?

    Frankly, I think all the commentary about her priorities was profoundly unnecessary. It was sweet to see the child run to her mother’s arms at the end of the match and that genuine connection, more than all the avowals and punditry, shows a family that’s making things work.


  9. Great point, Janice: “It was sweet to see the child run to her mother’s arms at the end of the match and that genuine connection, more than all the avowals and punditry, shows a family that’s making things work.”

    That’s what makes me think that Clijsters may just be playing offense against the accusation that she’s not motherly enough, feminine enough, heterosexual enough, etc. (Bearing in mind that we don’t know exactly what question was asked before she made that comment, or in what context that comment came in the midst of the broader interview.)

    I like ej’s point about what constitutes a “retirement.” I think you’re right–but as others have written elsewhere, this happens a lot when it comes to representations of women’s work. I’ve seen a lot of stories about women who are “staying home with their children” now–because they were laid off! So men’s layoffs = unemployment, whereas middle-class women’s layoffs = stay home with the children and regroup. I’m not being critical of the choice to do this–I’m suggesting that certain story lines are plausible only when it’s women workers we’re talking about.


  10. “Obviously?” Well, maybe it is obvious to her and her family. Unless I am mistaken, SHE has put forward that her own priorities are family first and sport/work second. Is that NOT her prerogative? Some parents (mothers or fathers) may find it inspiring that she can balance family and profession at the highest level.


  11. Yes, Richard–that’s why I wrote this in the initial post: “I realize that the “I’m a wife and mother first” story line is something that Clijsters herself is pushing–but I don’t wonder that the media is so eager to seize upon this narrative. Perhaps Clijsters is choosing to talk this way so as to play up to the traditional expectations we have of women–and perhaps she made the calculation that her motherhood would be a constant in any stories about her anyway.”

    And then I wrote this in a comment above: “That’s what makes me think that Clijsters may just be playing offense against the accusation that she’s not motherly enough, feminine enough, heterosexual enough, etc. (Bearing in mind that we don’t know exactly what question was asked before she made that comment, or in what context that comment came in the midst of the broader interview.)”

    You’ll have to step it up if you want to comment here!


  12. @ Janice. I really love that “oxygen mask” parable. I’ve been using it around my department a lot lately in the context of a completely different discourse. As in, why people need to keep doing research, even if it, arguably, “cuts into your teaching.” i.e., so you are oxygenated enough to have something to teach that somebody would want to learn. I expect the metaphor is looked at as quizically in these various symbolic usages, however, as it often seems to be on the planes I fly. But still its a point well taken.

    And congrats, ej!


  13. The contrast with Caster Semenya (or Santhi Soundarajan a few years ago) is perhaps worth noting. Culturally approved feminine markers do seem to matter.

    Economic class seems to matter too. Plenty of women work at jobs that are just as physically demanding as professional tennis (in a trade, on the farm, as “unskilled” labor, you name it). Plenty of women “make a comeback” to the workplace after giving birth, either out of economic necessity or because it’s just what they want to do. Where are the articles heralding all of them?


  14. Having spent *way* too much time watching Grand Slam tennis while on leave (I actually stay up to watch the Australian Open matches live, and dedicated an entire weekend to the US Open), I thought I would weigh in here.

    So, a couple of points. First, I think the age factor plays into this story in a couple of ways that haven’t been mentioned. 26 is not old in nearly every career in the world–not even for most sports careers. But is positively *ancient* in tennis, especially women’s tennis, where many of the top players go pro at age 14 or so. There are lots of reasons for this, including the fact that the tennis season (at 40 weeks) is much longer than what any other athletes play, meaning that the injury rate can be pretty high, esp. for chronic things like back, knees, shoulders, etc. Clijsters herself retired after a 10 years pro career, before her comeback. She had also suffered a career-threatening injury just before her retirement–which I am gonna guess influenced the retirement decision in a pretty heavy way as well. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, and some “older” players who do well–Serena Williams, for instance, is older than Clijsters. (But one of the other endlessly repeated stories of the tournament was how S. Williams keeps herself injury free by skipping most of the tournaments.)

    The life-cycle of female tennis players may put it in something of a different category even then other women’s pro sports, let alone other careers. Very, very few players launch a comeback at 26, regardless of their reason for retirement. This may change in the future, as the age of pro women’s players rises, but who knows. (And the age of women’s players isn’t rising *that* much– Clijsters’ opponent in the final was 17 years old.) So I wonder if the press coverage is shaped by assumptions not just of motherhood in general but assumptions of when women “should” become mothers.

    This is actually somewhat true for men’s players as well. Very few of the top players have children before retirement; looking at the list of the Hall of Fame men’s players who’ve won the most Grand Slam tournaments, I believe that Roger Federer is the first who actually woman a major tournament after having kids. (John McEnroe retired for two years to get married and have kids when he was 25, about the same time Clijsters retired. He came back after two years and won three tournaments the rest of his career, after winning 74 previously. The same happened with Bjorn Borg.) And tennis commentators have historically tended to focus a lot on how becoming a “family man” signifies that a player is on the down slope of his career. The 2002 coverage of Pete Sampras becoming a dad is a prime example. (And Sampras never entered a Grand Slam tournament after his first child was born.)

    And in Federer’s case, many sports journalists wrote during most of this year that his getting married and having kids at 28 (ancient!) was a sign that he was losing his focus. (Of course, once it became clear that he was not, in fact, washed up, the stories all became about how becoming a family man had “grounded him.”) There’s a very general assumption among the punditry, for the male and female stars, that being a parent means that you’re no longer serious about being a real champ. The trope that parents are losers, at least at the top level, has been a part of tennis commentary for a while. To the extent that Clijsters is pushing this story-line herself, it maybe as much that she buys into this narrative about “focus” as anything else. (FWIW, a friend of mine from high school was a pro tennis player and actually coached Monica Seles for a bit; if his experience is representative, the players themselves do see it this way.)

    All of which is to say that I think the coverage of Clijsters is less unusual that it seems here, and not quite as gender-specific as Historiann and some of the commentators have suggested. To my mind, one of the unexplored stories here is something no one has brought up but is very relevant to the overall discussion here. Clijsters is the third mother to win a Grand Slam in the Open era, and Federer one of the few fathers. But *none* of the commentary I have read talks about the decades before the Open era–when only amateurs were allowed to compete in the Grand Slam tournaments.

    During the amateur era, moms and dads were champs all the time. It’s only during the pro period that this became a rarity. Exploring that question, however, would require some kind of honest discussion about the class dimensions of the professional/amateur divide, which is something pundits have always been loathe to do.

    I do apologize for the length of this post. Like I said, I follow a *lot* of tennis, and spend a lot of time sitting and pondering race, gender, and sports. (We’re not gonna talk about how the lineswoman may have felt extra threatened by Serena Williams because Serena is one of the few black women who play the sport professionally, as well as the most overtly “muscular” and thus “masculine” female players?)


  15. Your point, Historiann, is what exactly? That, as you write, “Perhaps Clijsters is choosing to talk this way…” and that she “may just be playing offense.” Why stop your supposition there? Why not just say that her motherhood is a rouse too? Your arguments are based on nothing other than an assumption and an agenda. Rather than saying embracing Clijsters as someone who is breaking traditional barriers, you are just belittling accomplishments and, more importantly, her intentions.

    “…step it up to comment here!’ You do seem to like to run folks off. Fine by me. Keep your blog and your six readers. This is your blog, you can do whatever you like. I am out. I will just add, though, that anonymity on the web is completely overstated. So when you are snarky and rude (see, most recently, your breeders and breastfeeding posts and comments), you do not do it from behind a curtain. And that is nothing but an observation.


  16. I have to agree with John S. I follow quite a bit of tennis and I do think there’s a bit more to the Clijsters coverage than meets the eye. First John is right to point out that having children is quite rare for anybody high up in the singles rankings, which on both sides still skew quite young. Federer himself has received a fair amount of coverage about the fact that he just became a father. Of course there isn’t the same incredulity that he’s physically up to snuff, though there have been questions about how mentally with it he’d be after the twins were born. (And actually, he hasn’t yet won a Grand Slam as a father; so word’s out on that.)

    Clijsters is particularly interesting though because, from all appearances, she’s playing considerably better now than she was before. It took her years to win her first grand slam (to the point where she was seen as a somewhat invalid number #1 because she hadn’t won one); the fact that she’s now so mentally strong that she can pop back into the sport (unranked, no less) and win a grand slam is part of the reason for the hype; she’s never displayed that kind of mental toughness and drive before. Also, she’s getting a lot of attention because the women’s game is in shambles. It does say something that she can come back from what was meant to be a permanent retirement (she was quite emphatic about that when she left the sport) and in three weeks, win 7 matches against people who’ve been tested in match play all year.


  17. Veiled threats ? class act, Dick. I would refer you to the occasional series “lessons for girls”. Yes, historiann gets to make what you interpret to be rude and snarky remarks when you comment aggressively without READING THE POST CAREFULLY.


  18. Also I do want to stress that when she retired, she did so purposefully and intentionally, with no intent to return or at least that’s what she said publicly. She did so to focus on her family, yes, but she also sounded tired of the sport. (Similar in fact to her fellow Belgian Justine Henin.) This is in contrast with Lindsay Davenport, who never made such a big pronouncement, got pregnant, took some time off, and returned. So I do think her situation was more than an extended maternity leave and I think there is some cause to believe that she spent a fair amount of that time not playing rigorous tennis.


  19. I actually thought that Historiann was using that language to avoid making this an ad hominem attack on Clijsters, but to shed light on the way she and her choices were being portrayed by the media. And I think most of the comments here have been in that vein, even suggesting at one point that she felt the need to state that her family was still her first priority to avoid attacks about being a bad mother.

    But to return to the discussion at hand, I’m wondering why tennis seems so uniquely problematic when it comes to children, for men or women. It seems to me that the vast majority of male athletes have children at various stages of their careers, some even while they are still in college, and its never viewed as an issue.


  20. John S. and thefrogprincess–you follow tennis a lot more closely than I do! Thanks for the background. It seems to me lately, though, that women’s tennis is becoming (or returning?) to more of a women’s game than a girls’ game. Like the men’s game, there seem to be more players who are hanging on through their 20s–but maybe I’m letting the Williams sisters overshadow my view of the sport.

    And, Dick: buh-bye. Thanks for playing! I was trying nicely to suggest that (as Fratguy said) reading and thinking are requirements for commenting here, but that’s clearly not your style. I like to keep things welcoming for commenters who comment here honestly. That’s one of the things about linking my blog to my professional identity: my 6 readers wouldn’t respect me so much if I tolerated jerks like you. And that is nothing but an observation.


  21. I’ll just post a reminder here: Rules for Commenting are at the top of the home page on the left, or click here. Memorize this: “Pointed questions, challenges, and spirited debate are welcome, but attacks on people’s integrity, reading comprehension abilities, and intellectual capacity will get you banned from commenting here. Comments that don’t address the main point of a post or that continue to hammer away on the same foolish tangent will be summarily deleted. Provocateurs will not be permitted to disrupt the conversations here.” I might add that appearing not to be interested in a conversation, or affecting belligerence, will also get you banned.

    New commenters who show up without a blog linked to their name should be treated with caution until they prove themselves good citizens.


  22. ej–I think that is an outstanding point. I think the answer lies in the structural dynamics of the sport. The perception that tennis players need to be more focused on the sport, and less focused on their personal lives (including family) than other athletes is rooted in reality, in some respect. Tennis players specialize in their sport and turn pro at a much earlier age than those in other sports do, which lends itself to something of a monomaniacal focus. The season is also longer and the travel demands much greater than in other sports; there are no “home” games, and you can have “away” games in New York one week and Singapore the next. It’s really kinda nuts. I think it is legitimately harder for tennis players to have families than other pros. Which makes examples like Clijsters all the more noteworthy.

    (Moreover, the family lives of other athletes does come into public discussion when it “interferes” with their pro careers. Fans at times seem shocked that players don’t love being traded and having to uproot their families. There was extensive coverage the last two weeks when a star player from the Patriots was traded to the Raiders and didn’t report immediately to the team–because, you know, “products” can be sent across the country by their owners at any time and don’t mind. Turns out the guy was a struggling with what to do with his four kids during the first week of school. How dare he let being a father impinge upon his role as a defensive lineman!)

    There’s also another element that comes into play for both genders, but more so for women. The fact that tennis players go pro so early means that they are often much more under the thumb of “tennis parents” or eagle eye coaches than athletes in other sports. This is mostly considered normal–especially for female players. It only attracts comment when it reaches abusive, restraining-order type situations. There are, sadly, many more of these situations than you see in other sports, as well–Mary Pierce, Jelena Jokovic, and others. Combined with the fact that women go pro so early and that careers are so short, this means that many female tennis pros spend their entire professional life with dads (or dad-figure coaches) managing their lives in great detail.

    It’s a form of professionalization that relies on a kind of extended adolescence as the norm. It’s relatively unique among major pro sports. “Growing up”–including getting married and having kids–involves ditching coaches and managers in a way that it doesn’t in other sports. But players, fans, and pundits, accept that largely without question.

    There’s an important racial and class component here as well, however. Tennis players, the overwhelming majority of whom are white, are pulled out of school (by tennis parents) around 14. That’s the norm. No one bats an eyelash at this. I would estimate that tennis players are the least educated of all pro athletes. (Not making a comment about intelligence here–just formal schooling. And no, I don’t count the schooling at the “Tennis Academies” that you see in Florida and overseas as real school.)

    But when a white athlete, or *especially* a black athlete tries to go pro early, perhaps by trying to move from high school to the NBA or NFL–well, that’s terrible, isn’t it? Why don’t they go to college to get an education? You mean some of them are only at UNC/Kansas/MSU/Louisville/USC so that they can prepare themselves for the pros? How mercenary! Amateur NCAA sports are so awesome, and should be played for love of the game.

    I bring up the last point to suggest that the double standards in the perception and reality of tennis as a sport run pretty deep. Some of it’s racial, some of it’s class, and some of it is gender based. Public expectations of how tennis players should behave are wildly different from how we think other pro athletes should behave. And because American tennis players are predominantly white and generally come from more affluent backgrounds than pros in other sports, their behavior is seen through a different lens.

    One thing that makes tennis fascinating for this discussion is that it’s also the only sport where we can make these kinds of comparisons. There is no female equivalent to the NFL, Major League Baseball, or the like. And the WNBA is not only far smaller financially than the NBA, its teams are actually owned by the NBA in most cases. Tennis is the only sport where men and women are equally famous and get equal pay. All of which makes this a richer discussion, I think.


  23. @ej: My initial thoughts as to why a career in tennis may be so at odds with having children are these. First, there is a very limited off-season, about six weeks between end of season tourneys in November and the warmups to the Australian Open in early January. Second, tennis requires an inordinate amount of global travel, especially if you’re not one of the top 50. If you’re trying to qualify for major tournaments, you’re grinding it out in the middle of nowhere, Central Asia and the like, at challenger tournaments. And while I’m sure some wives and girlfriends travel with, fewer husbands and boyfriends do so. (Sounds eerily familiar…) In fact, when Justine Henin was Justine Henin-Hardenne, I believe she was one of the very few top women even to be married. Incidentally, tennis journalists have been focused a lot lately on how isolated the women are on tour, traveling mainly with their male coaches, trainers, and occasionally the tyrannical father and rarely socializing with other players. This is stark contrast to the men.

    And to historiann’s point about the game being a game for women again and not just girls: I think there’s something to that, especially once you move beyond the top 10. There are a lot of players whose names might not be recognizable to people who have more of a life than I do but who are in their late 20s, early 30s. Ai Sugiyama, for example, is retiring this year at 34. And Venus is nearing 30.


  24. thefrogprincess–I know you’re not! (At least, I’ve met John, who looks nothing like a frog princess…)

    Fascinating comments about the isolation of the women v. the men. (Yes, thefrogprincess–this is sounding all too familiar!)

    John S. makes interesting points about the class and race angles here re: education (or lack thereof). It’s this kind of singlemindedness (being pulled out of school at 14, living in a world of only trainers and stage-parents) of people who aspire to win Grand Slam matches that I was getting at when I expressed skepticism of the media’s angle that Clijsters was a come-from-outta-nowhere victory and that she’s been spending all of her time with her baby rather than on the court. So much of the work that goes into this level of athletic achievement is masked–intentionally it seems, by the sports press and the sports and players themselves. (And I think this may be a gender-netural thing.) Why? Is it because the fans like to think there is such a thing as a “natural,” rather than a highly cultivated talent?

    We take for granted that to get to the top of most professions and the arts, it takes years of training, work, and a singleminded focus on one’s metier. Why do we still need to believe in the Cinderella Story in sports?


  25. OK–that was my last long post–I promise! But Historiann, you’re right about the Williams sisters. There are dissertations (ok, at least one) that could be written about their careers. Part of what I find so fascinating about them is how their very rational efforts to prolong their careers are perceived.

    Both Serena and Venus play fewer tournaments than the other top female players, which makes perfect sense if you’re in your late 20s and don’t want to get hurt. And how do many fans and pundits respond? You hear complaints about how they aren’t trying hard enough; they disrespect the game by not showing up every week and only putting in effort during the big tournaments. (And there they mostly rely on “natural ability.” It’s almost as if they’re lazy!) Serena especially gets accused of thinking she’s “above the sport” and thinks too much of herself. She’s got a “bad attitude.”

    All of these are charges that have been levied against black athletes, male and female, for years. To be reductionist, I think that in some ways the public treats the Williamses as black instead of female. (Telling in and of itself.) And these critiques are deeply related to their efforts to manage their careers and avoid injuries and burnout so that they can play longer as “women” and not as “girls.” (I do not want to know what the coverage would be like if one of them became an unmarried mom, however. Many heads would explode.)

    OK–Enough tennis talk for me! Back to work!


  26. I know this is slightly off point, but what is with the ‘I am a … mother, wife, historian, etc’ first, second, fifthly, that have become so popular of late. Since when did we have such an obsession with compartmentalising our identities into different parts and then ranking them. I know that calling yourself a wife or a mother or whatever isn’t new, but this need to split our identities into various parts and then have them compete against each other, seems to be much more culturally important of late.

    What happened to being complex individuals with different identities and roles that informed each other?


  27. John–I read that kind of commentary about the Williamses as gendered as well–the presumption that the public is entitled to their labor. This is of course a deep and wide discourse about African American men as well. But the way you describe the construction of their strategy sounds like complaints about “female loaferism” among emancipated African American women in the later 19th C, who were accused of laziness because they weren’t working in every case in other women’s households as domestics!

    I know the comparison may strike many as strange, given the amounts of money the Williamses have earned in their careers and the level at which they compete. But, I suppose a pissed-off public could stop showing up to their matches, could stop supporting the products they endorse, etc., if they were really angry about it. And yet–the appetite for the Williams sisters is still apparently limitless. (I have to say, I don’t follow them they way you do, but I’ve admired what I’ve see of their business savvy.)

    Feminist Avatar asks, “What happened to being complex individuals with different identities and roles that informed each other?” But–we’re talking about WOMEN, FA, not “individuals” or “people.” All women are exactly alike and need exactly the same thing! What is this “individual” of whom you speak?


  28. In r.e. criticism of the Williams sisters for picking and choosing tournaments, I think there’s maybe a broader sports culture at work here, too. In cycling circles, Lance Armstrong has gotten the same treatment for riding only the Tour de France and specific warm-up grand tour races, like the Giro d’Italia. The discourse there has always seemed to me to be much informed by the sports myths, however unrealistic, of meritocracy and the “love of the game.” Star athletes who focus on the most important or prestigious competitions are seen as being in it for the glory and/or money, rather than for love of the sport. And when they don’t take part in the less glamorous events where the journeymen toil away–and then win those big events–they start to look like aristocrats with special privileges (extra training time and rest), which violates the myth that if you work hard, pay your dues, and play with heart, you will be rewarded.


  29. I’ll admit I fall prey to these arguments against the Williams sisters, particularly Serena, so the comments here have given me some pause. Part of that is no doubt due to the fact that I follow the men’s game more closely than the women’s. But there is something unique about the Williams’s approach to tennis that does distinguish them from, say, Federer, who plays a fairly conservative schedule but rarely if ever bombs in warmup events and plays enough other events to avoid coming in for the same kind of criticism. What I do think is happening, in tennis specifically, is a real disgust towards how shambolic the women’s game is at the moment with a less than legitimate #1 and past #1s fading fast. That disgust is amplified by the fact that the Williams sisters can just pop up at a Slam and win with their “lackadaisical” approach; Clijsters too fits into that narrative. If the women’s tour were as strong as the men’s, then players could not take time off as they wanted and expect to come back contenders. So once again, even subconsciously, women are being held up to an arbitrary standard and deemed substandard and I’ll be the first to admit I fall into this trap.


  30. thefrogprincess–you make an excellent point here. Right now in the women’s game you have a system where no one really believes the #1 ranked player is really the best player, or that the system in general really reflects the talent and ability of the top players. The supposedly objective system by which the women are judged and rated is obviously flawed, which helps all kinds of conscious and subconscious things to creep in when we’re evaluating women’s actions. (Come to think of it, it’s a little like negative value judgments are made in academia. Quantitative assessments are almost always full of crap, while subjective judgments become opportunities for bias to flourish.)

    There’s an interesting institutional dynamic here as well. Both the men’s and women’s tours have unions that have pretty consistently complained about the length of the season, the fact that players have so much pressure on them to show up to every minor tournament everywhere to keep their rankings up, etc. In essence, the things unions usually complain about: the rules of the workplace and things that impact worker safety.

    The difference, though, is that the men’s tennis union seems pretty consistently stronger than the women’s union. The men have been somewhat successful at changing the calendar and the ranking system so that there isn’t the pressure to play every week. The women’s union, on the other hand, has had less success in this respect, and relatively minor tournaments carry a greater relative weight. (To be very arcane, the Women’s tour thinks that the Pilot Pen tournament in New Haven–not a big deal tournament-is half as important as the Grand Slam US Open, while the men’s tour thinks it’s about 30% as important, at least when figuring out the rankings. Yes, I did just look that up.) Sponsors insist that leading women show up at every event–Pilot wants Venus Williams to come to New Haven every August–and the women’s association obliges. This is part of what lends the women’s ranking system a shambolic character. The quantity versus quality ratio of tournament wins is way out of whack in comparison to the men’s game.

    Of course, the women’s union has had less success in other areas as well, most notably the difficult struggle to achieve equal pay at many of the major tournaments. The interesting counterfactual would be: what if the women’s union were as strong as the men’s? How would things be different?

    I know my posts on this thread keep coming back to some of the same kinds of issues. I can get obsessed with the business/institutional end of sports. But in this case as in many others, I think that the (relative) weakness of institutional support for women pros does influence public perception in sometimes unseen ways.


  31. I had no idea that professional tennis players were in a union–but I’m also astonished that there is a men’s union and a women’s union? Why doesn’t ONE union represent players’ interests? (I understand that women’s matches are shorter than men’s matches–something I also just don’t get in this day & age.)

    Ellie–thanks for your comment. All of my cycling friends are in the hate-Lance crowd, in large part for the reasons you discuss. But, as someone who doesn’t really follow sports at all, I have to say that I find it hard to blame the Williams sisters or Armstrong for wanting to extend their careers and protect their “brand.” The rewards of “the love of the sport” aren’t nearly as great as being who they are!


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