Saturday, June 5, 2010

When did the storyline become so distorted?

Francesca Schiavone hadn't rubbed the clay off of her face when they started--the pronouncements that the Italian's French Open win is bad for the WTA. You can see the complaining in a number of forums, or you can read it in more formal venues. Greg Couch put in succintly: "Schiavone's win was one giant leap for a woman, but one small step backward for tenniskind. She is a likable woman living a great moment in a special way, and while that's great for the club of tennis fanatics, it was a moment that will go unnoticed outside of Italy."

I have news for the detractors: If Sam Stosur had won, the only difference would be that her country, Australia, is bigger than Italy. Because women's tennis is marketed for its supposed sex appeal--using a very rigid, very Caucasian standard for what is "beautiful"--rather than for its sports value. Only the superstars like Venus and Serena Williams--players who are so successful that they have to be noticed for their athletic accomplishments--get past the gate. (Though I don't really know what that means, since so many people in the U.S. who converse so easily about the sisters have never even seen them play.)

Couch does go on to explain that a win by Stosur might have been the beginning of a very big deal. He could be right, so if that is the case, I wonder how many majors Stosur would have to win before television viewers stopped wishing she had slimmer arms, more revealing tennis outfits, and long blonde hair? Jon Wertheim gets right to the point: "But I'm not sure if you gave the WTA or NBC truth serum, they would say the 29-year-old Italian is quite the champion they envisioned. If this had been Caroline Wozniacki and Stosur, it'd be a different story."

And even if Stosur is destined to win a lot of majors and become a tennis superstar, and her big debut has been postponed, why is the Schiavone storyline so bad?

It is, in fact, wonderful. Schiavone is ranked outside the top 10, she's from a country that had never produced a female major tournament champion, she's almost 30 years old, she has a history of not being able to hold her nerve at big moments, and she has an utterly charming personality. Oh--and she played truly fantastic tennis in the final. Just imagine--if her name were Francisco Schiavone, she would be an instant sports legend.

On top of everything else, Schiavone and Stosur produced one of the best major finals of the past few years. The match didn't go three sets, but it was well-played and fun to watch. The tour now has an opportunity to promote Schiavone as a special kind of champion--a veteran tour member who was savvy enough and tough enough to upset a huge favorite. The sports media also has an opportunity to promote women's tennis with a fresh and touching story; as a bonus, Schiavone gives a more entertaining interview than most of the other players, and is quite engaging.

Schiavone's French Open win is one of the most dramatic tennis stories of the past several years. What a shame that so many are viewing it as the "wrong" story, and as somehow deterimental to women's tennis.

The good news is that there has also been an outpouring of appreciation for Schiavone and what she did Saturday. In the New York Times, Geoff McDonald wrote:  "But the real story of the match was how Schiavone embraced the biggest moment of her career with a passionate, gutsy performance that moved many in the crowd--especially her Italian supporters--to tears of joy. It was a bravura performance by Schiavone, 29, who played the match of her life when it counted most."

I like that version of the story. And, as Stosur herself said, "I think it proves you don't have to be the teenage wonderkid superstar to win the tournament like this." Amen, sister.


Karen said...

Diane, it is those who do not watch tennis who do not appreciate what Schiavone did yesterday. On their heads be it. I enjoyed this match so much. Both ladies played wonderful all court tennis and I enjoyed it. It kept me rooted to my chair in my bedroom (could not lie down for this one). Good serving, wonderful ball striking, transition games up the wazoo, slicing, dicing, top spinning, brilliant tennis. Just remarkable. As you say if it was Francisco who had won we would not be having this discussion. I hope this pushes Francesca to greater heights and Stosur as well.

As to the men, I hope Soderling takes it today. I think the time has come to end the Nadal/Federer duopoly. It has made men's tennis boring. Just as how Francesca and Sam showed us real good tennis and they were both not afraid of their own shadow, so should Soderling go out there and show that he is not afraid.

Sunny nine said...

Great stuff Diane and your remarks also Karen. I had so much fun watching yesterday's final. I realized that I was really smiling with the joy that Schiavone expressed. It was so pure and spontaneous. Looking for a Hero? Look no further. This is the kind of person the WTA SHOULD be promoting. And promoting to their own players. That you work hard, get fit and you can make that breakthrough anytime. You don't have to be young, a certain type or popular. So much of what the WTA promotes is like I was back in high school. Seeing two different players playing using all the skills of tennis was refreshing. And hugging at the end-a real hug. They were both mature in their pressers too. It was sad to start reading some of the stuff that was being put out their regarding the match and who was in it. Sam was too muscular and Schiavone not the right type. But I didn't let it ruin it for me. My husband and I like baseball also and if the World Series is not the Yankees or Red Sox or some other eastern team the networks get upset. They are not interested in small markets even though the guys put in work there. I just hope some of the other women see Marinez Sanchez and Schiavone and try to emulate their moves. Footwork, footwork, footwork!
Karen, I like Fed and am proud that I followed him since 2001 before he became great. I also like Rafa (I don't believe that you can't like both.) But I am hoping Soderling wins today. I have liked him too for awhile. It would be so wonderful just to have a different men's winner also. They are going on the court now so I will finish this post. P.S. I will have to mute this one. The commentators will go on and on about Rafa.

Karen said...

Sunny, neither of us got our wish today. I knew Soderling would not win but I was hoping he would at least get a set for all his hard work. He never even got a break of serve. Nadal is just too tough.

Diane said...

I figured Nadal in four, but Soderling looked really flat out there today--he didn't even have his serve.

Sunny nine said...

Well, I am still feeling the feel good moment from yesterday. I do have to mourn Fed being one week shy of tying Sampras' non-consecutive weeks no 1 record though.
But like I said, it was such a good and happy major final for the women that it overshadowed the men's.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the content of your story, but I couldn't disagree more with your conclusion.

Any guy that saw her interviews, and saw her jumping for joy during the last few points, would consider Francesca the ultimate female athlete.

I'm a guy, and she's a fit joyful Italian - fantasies don't get better than that!

Todd Spiker said...

It's just a tired, ages-old story when it comes to women's tennis these days, isn't it?

Venus and Serena dominate... and many say it shows that the rest of the women aren't any good. Henin dominates, but she's "not a big enough star" (well, until she retired, then there was a "vacuum" in the sport). Other players move up, but they're "not good enough." Venus and Serena move back to the top, but that just means "no one else is any good."

And you're totally right, if Stosur had won the discussion would have been questions about "no one knowing who she is," or her biceps (you "know what that means"... it's been eleven years since Mauresmo burst out in Oz, but the discussion would likely have felt like a flashback everywhere but in Australia) and all sorts of other things that really would have had nothing to do with anything that actually happened on a tennis court.

At some point, all you can do it shake your head and say, "some people will never be satisfied."

Of course, if more television networks actually followed the sport rather than just a few stars, people might appreciate things more. But I guess if a player isn't a candidate to either be in the SI swimsuit issue or in a watch ad, they're essentially a non-person to the Powers That Be.

I mean, look at Navratilova. What did it take, thirty years, for her to finally get a national commercial a few years ago for the very first time in her tennis career/lifetime?

Diane said...

Anon, these are not my conclusions--for every expression of appreciation of Schiavone's victory and the Schiavone-Stosur final, there has been at least one put-down, insult, or "the end is near" snide comment. I had to stop reading them.

I'm with you--it's hard for me to see how anyone could feel anything but admiration for the new French Open champion!

Todd, maybe we should start a meme about the fate of the ATP since Soderling came out so flat and won only ten games. And anyway, no one outside of Sweden knows who he is....