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Tennis surpasses women’s sport and still struggles for footing

Why is there only room at the top for a women’s sport?

We now move into the final weekend of the French Open, a showcase for two thrilling singles finals. At the women’s championship match in Paris, two players will stand by in a long battle for supremacy in women’s tennis.

Iga Swiatek, a 21-year-old Polish champion who won this 2020 tournament, plays a form of clean cutthroat tennis that has her on the verge of winning 35 straight matches.

Standing in her way is 18-year-old American Coco Gauff, the bubbly child prodigy who may already be too established to be considered a child prodigy anymore. Reaching the final of a major tournament, doing it boldly and uncompromisingly, stamps Gauff as an enduring and formidable force.

Gauff and Swiatek write their bids for history on Saturday. The matchup for the men’s final has not yet been determined, but will take place on Sunday. Both games are expected to draw massive and near-equal publicity, but women’s tennis still has to fight for fair standing. We’ve seen that unfold again on the red clay at Roland Garros over the past two weeks (more on that later). Still, professional tennis sets the standard for popularity and viability in women’s sport — and it’s nowhere near it.

Thanks to the fight for fairness spearheaded by legends like Althea Gibson, the Williams sisters and Billie Jean King, the women’s pro game consistently plays to a packed, enthusiastic crowd. Their finals often draw more spectators than the men’s at the most prominent events. Off the pitch, the top players are the gold of support and social media. They have received the same prize money at the four Grand Slam tournaments since 2007. Either Gauff or Swiatek will walk away with a whopping $2.4 million.

Every major tennis championship presents an opportunity to wonder why other women’s sports aren’t finding the same success.

Professional golf comes closest to that, but doesn’t have it. Neither does big football.

Despite recent advances ensuring equal pay for the United States men’s and women’s national teams, women’s soccer has been largely in the shadows except during the World Cup.

Interest in sports like gymnastics, figure skating, swimming and skiing increases when the Olympics come around, but always wanes when the Games end.

Women’s basketball is on the rise in popularity, particularly at the collegiate level. Still, it looks like the battle for respect in the pro ranks will drag on for years to come. When I wrote a column last week about a former star of a top collegiate team struggling to fulfill his dream of breaking into a WNBA team, the reactions were typical.

Women’s basketball, said one reader, “is just a big yawn.” An old acquaintance called to give a standard phrase: “Women can’t dunk, so I don’t watch.”

The idea that women athletes have to perform like men in order to be taken seriously makes no sense. We should be able to enjoy and appreciate both on their own. Tennis is the best example. Overall, top female tennis players don’t hit with the power and spin of top pros.

And yet the women’s tour can more than hold its own.

Why can’t other sports do that?

There are no simple answers that explain the supremacy of tennis.

The fact that both men and women share glory at Wimbledon and the French, US and Australian Opens certainly adds to the prestige and luster of women’s football.

We still live in a world where strong, powerful women who break the norm struggle for acceptance. Consider the WNBA, which is stocked with outspoken women, most of whom are black, who have demonstrated a shared willingness to aggressively advocate for LGBTQ rights, reproductive freedom and politics. How do you think that is resonating in many corners of America and the world?

Yes, tennis often has a few outspoken players willing to publicly resist power. In the modern era of the game, Venus and Serena Williams just did it by showing up and dominating. Naomi Osaka was bending the rules with her face masks protesting for black rights. But the vast majority of women in tennis carry their significant power quietly, behind the scenes and in a way that doesn’t unduly disrupt the male-dominated status quo. To think that this is not a factor in the Pro Tour’s popularity would be foolish.

Men, of course, formed their major leagues decades before the age of women’s empowerment. Major League Baseball dates back to 1876. The NFL in 1920. For comparison, the NWSL was founded in 2012 and the WNBA in 1997. For decades, men sucked all the oxygen and the stars of the biggest professional sports became revered symbols. TV and radio gilded their games: Willie Mays’ miraculous midfield catch in the 1954 World Series; Johnny Unitas led the Baltimore Colts past the Giants in the 1958 NFL championship; Boston Celtics announcer Johnny Most shouted, “Havlicek stole the ball!” in 1965.

Through the enduring power of radio and television, these and countless other moments of greatness were forever etched into memory. They did not include women.

Time changes everything, albeit slowly.

1973’s ‘battle of the sexes’ – king versus chauvinist windbag Bobby Riggs – set a new and enduring tone. Their match drew 90 million viewers, making it one of the most watched sporting spectacles then or since, and helping to take women’s tennis to once unthinkable heights.

But the sparring doesn’t end there. At the French Open over the past two weeks, organizers have held night sessions that included the match of the day. Ten were played. Only one was a women’s game.

Talk about complicated. Controversy over the schedule erupted when, of all people, Amélie Mauresmo, the tournament director and former top player, said she set the night’s schedule because the men’s game currently has more “allure” than the women’s game.

So that means Swiatek, the top seed and former Parisian champion with a monumental winning streak, wasn’t appealing enough. Gauff wasn’t appealing enough. The same goes for four-time major champion Osaka or last year’s young and charismatic US Open finalists Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu. Nobody went into the clay at night.

The more things change, the more things stay the same.

The players and rulers of women’s tennis must always be vigilant, but they have one distinct advantage: their controversies, their serious struggles and their championship fights unfold on the grandest stages before the eyes of the world.

But why does women’s tennis have to be alone?

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