When people talk about tennis and titles, it's the four majors—Wimbledon and the Australian, French and U.S. Opens—that typically come to mind.Here's one more to consider: Title IX.
True, the landmark piece of legislation was not adopted with professional sports in mind. Yet the fact is that nothing—not even Title IX—has done more to promote gender equity in sports than the world of women's professional tennis.
The latest example is Serena Williams' profanity-laced tirade directed at a line judge last weekend, which eventually resulted in her defeat in a semifinal match at the U.S. Open.
In case you missed it, Williams' response to being called for a foot-fault as she faced match point was to tell the woman who made the call—among other things—"If I could, I would take this fucking ball and shove it down your fucking throat." Sure, it cost her $10,000 in a fine and the match. But it was invaluable as the latest step toward true athletic balance.
Up until now, boorish behavior and vulgarity have been the exclusive domain of male "sportsmen." It has been celebrated in various forms, ranging from John McEnroe's tantrums to Earl Weaver's verbal assaults on umpires to Sean Avery's off-ice comments and on-ice antics alike, to—well, hell, just about anything Terrell Owens has done over the last decade or so.
Williams' meltdown is every bit as important as Billie Jean King's victory over Bobby Riggs in 1973 or the decision by Wimbledon in 2007 finally to fall in line with the other majors and offer equal prize money to the men's and women's champions. It proves that women can be competitive to the point of irrationality.
Too often still, the male audience views female athletes as sex objects. We are more likely to tune in to see Maria Sharapova's long legs than we are to watch her heavy ground-strokes. We'll show much more interest in Natalie Gulbis' two hooters than any number of birdies she possibly can produce over the course of 18 holes.
Williams herself has been cast in that role. Debates have raged over the perceived contrast of some of her provocative competitive clothing to her muscular, powerful physique.
The understanding always has been that female athletes should look and behave like ladies if they want to attract the all-important male demographic. Never mind that football is this country's most popular sport, and mixed martial arts is its fastest-growing one—and there is nothing remotely dainty about either of those pursuits.
A recent documentary about the popularity of 1980s hair metal theorized that part of what made that genre so appealing to women was that the band members—men in all their glammed-out glory—looked like women and were, therefore, less threatening. It makes sense given all the Sunset Strip records that were sold, especially since we all know that no one was celebrating the real musicianship of the scene.
Assuming that's true, it makes sense to think that men want to see more of themselves in athletes, male or female. They certainly have found ample reasons to watch men's sports over the decades but more often than not have tuned out the women, who have tried virtually everything but a more masculine approach.
Now Williams has shattered another perceived boundary with a verbal assault for the ages. There's no going back now.
Pretty soon Michelle Wie will intentionally drive a golf ball into the beer belly of a gallery member who belches during her backswing. Candace Parker will spit on Spike Lee following a 360 dunk. And Jenny Finch, irate over the strike zone, will throw balls targeted for the home plate umpire's.
The sooner, the better, too. Williams' rage has people talking. It also guarantees more people than ever—particularly men—will tune in the next time she's on the tube, hoping for a repeat performance.
And while we're talking gender equity in sports, let's not question Caster Semenya's, my athlete of the week.
Reports are that the women's 800-meter world champion, an 18-year-old from South Africa, is a hermaphrodite and that her testosterone level was three times that of a normal woman last month when she won her title. The IAAF says it won't release the results of her testing until November.
Again, we needn't focus on gender here. Instead, let's celebrate Semenya as an athlete blessed with unique gifts, one ahead of her time. Eventually we'll get to the point where men and women compete together in all sports. And it won't matter then if the junk is his, hers or both.
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