Women move at own speed
Varying styles, lighter ball highlight game
By Harvey Fialkov
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
With Top 10 players of wide-ranging styles -- from the soft-serving Elena Dementieva to baseline-slugger Maria Sharapova -- neither the officials nor the players on the WTA Tour have clamored for changing the speed of the game.
"We're not aware of any clear pattern of slowing down courts on the women's side," said Andrew Walker, vice president of communications for the Sony Ericsson WTA. "There has never been complaints that the women's game is too fast. Our players are more about finesse and angles than hitting through players."
The men and women play at the same sites at eight tournaments, including the four Grand Slams. However, WTA spokeswoman Isabelle Hodge said the women use a lighter ball than the standard ball (56 to 59.4 grams) used by the men to inject more speed into their rallies and counteract the slower surfaces.
As the men's game was being criticized for being too fast and one-dimensional in the late '90s, the more versatile women's game was soaring in popularity -- particularly in the United States -- with the emergence of Venus and Serena Williams, whose combination of power and athleticism sparked interest in an untapped black fan base.
Attendance at women's events is up 8 percent over the past five years, and Sony Ericsson is paying $88 million over six years to be the WTA's title sponsor, the most lucrative sponsor arrangement in women's sports history.
Despite the heavier balls and slower lawns at Wimbledon, NBC-TV ratings for the women's finals consistently have outdrawn the men from 2002-05, largely in part because of the presence of at least one Williams sister.
That could explain why the much-anticipated Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal final this year garnered substantially higher ratings than the Amelie Mauresmo-Justine Henin-Hardenne matchup (2.9 to 2.2 Nielsen rating points).
Martina Navratilova, arguably the greatest female serve-and-volleyer in tennis history, said she believes the slowing of the surfaces and nonconformity of balls has taken the variety out of the game as well as caused injuries to many of the top female stars.
"I think it was a knee-jerk reaction ..." said Navratilova, a nine-time Wimbledon singles champion, who at 49 still is playing doubles on the WTA Tour. "The courts are too slow for the rackets and the strings to come in consistently. You're a sitting duck for the baseliners.
"We're playing more tournaments on [concrete] ... and you play four weeks in a row with four different balls. It's ridiculous and bad on the body."
For whatever reasons -- injuries, surface and ball tweaks or world parity -- there are no American women ranked in the Top 10, with only 30-year-old Lindsay Davenport (11) and Venus Williams (31) in the Top 40.