So then, let’s get onto the tennis. I was disappointed to see Hackney girl Anne Keothavong go out early, after she’s had such a good run-in, but at least Elena Baltacha is still there, a gutsy player who’s had some terrible luck with injuries and who you can’t help warming to.
But that’s not what I want to talk about. What caught my eye was this appalling column from Liz Hunt in the Torygraph, which sadly is typical of what we can expect from a certain breed of female columnist. You see, Liz is settling down to watch Wimbledon:
I am not a year-round tennis fan. Like most Brits, my interest begins and ends with the Wimbledon fortnight.
So, we needn’t expect you to know much about the game, then?
But even a decade ago, I would have at least known the names of the seeded players, and their stories.
Come on Liz, that’s just age. It would be like me turning on Radio 1 for two weeks a year and saying, “But I’ve never heard of any of these bands. Whatever happened to Tenpole Tudor?”
But that’s not Liz’s point. Liz is intent on refighting the Cold War in SW19:
“I just know the standard,” Serena announced with an endearing disregard for political correctness. “Everyone is from Russia. Sometimes I think I’m from Russia, too. With all these new ‘-ovas’, I don’t know anyone.”
And this from a woman who is actually on the circuit! What hope do the rest of us have as, combing through the endless “-ovas” and “-evas” and “-inas” and “-enkos”, we try to find a player worthy of our allegiance.
We’ve got it, Liz. You have some trouble with the names. Seeing as how you don’t follow the game closely, you can’t be expected to be familiar with all the up-and-coming players. But no, it gets worse:
These aren’t real women, these are fembots – blonde (ish), blank-faced and Amazonian, shipped in off a production line somewhere in Eastern Europe…
The “-ovas” and “-evas”, are different. On court, they’re all power and pout; off it, they lack any personality. They’re good for rallies and photoshoots – especially the photoshoots – but not much more…
The “-ovas” and “-evas” – of whom there are 30 in this year’s draw alone – are interchangeable tennis totty.
There you have it. The East Europeans who dominate the women’s game aren’t actual people, with individual personalities, they’re interchangeable, undifferentiated and robotic. Thank God the Chinese aren’t dominating the game, because who knows what Liz would have to say about that.
It’s untrue, of course. Liz has a good old moan about Anna Kournikova – who, it is true, made much more money from modelling than she ever did from the tennis circuit, but was nonetheless a half-decent player with a few doubles titles to her name. But what of the East European women who make up half the draw at this year’s Wimbledon, including 17 of the 32 seeds? Some are blonde, some are not. Some have model looks, some do not. As for their personalities, many of the players are very young and, more importantly, don’t have English as a first language – it’s not surprising that Jelena Janković is a much more entertaining interviewee in the Serbian media.
But they dominate the rankings because they’re good players. Playing and winning is what they’re there for. It’s true that much of the marketing of female tennis players concentrates on their sex appeal rather than their athletic abilities, not least in the same papers whose wimmin’s section columnists moan about all these pretty Slavic women who they find oddly unsympathetic.
But this question of success on the court is the real issue at stake. If you look down the WTA rankings, you’ll notice immediately that the Williams sisters are the only Americans in the top fifty. As for Britain, Anne Keothavong is just about nudging into the top fifty, while her nearest rivals are bidding to get into the top hundred. When you think of all the money sloshing around the British and American games, how come less resource-rich countries like Slovakia, Romania, Serbia or Belarus are so much better at producing top-level players?
Partly, I think, it’s success breeding success. There was once a very successful East European player called Martina Navrátilová, who even Liz may have heard of. (Those were the days when columnists were less worried about the number of Slavs on the tour than the number of lesbians.) Martina dominated the game for years, won everything in sight, and inspired young girls in that part of the world. Then we had the likes of Monica Seles and Martina Hingis. Now we have this extraordinary crop of young women, who have grown up in an intensely competitive sporting culture and who have a hunger that isn’t really evident in the British game.
That’s the real point worth debating. But no, for the insta-pundit it’s much easier to reach for lazy ethnic cliches about robotic, blank-faced East Europeans, the sort of Slav-bashing I though had gone out of style when Wogan retired from Eurovision. I’ll never complain about Gail Walker again. No, that’s a lie…