19 December 2018

For Once, The Women Won't Be Thrown Under The Bus

Say what you will about Serena Williams' outburst, her style or anything else:  Women's tennis needs her more than she needs it.  I mean, when she retires--which I predict will happen some time after she breaks the record for Grand Slam singles titles--who will command the same sort of respect and attention she has?

(Now, I don't want her to retire any time soon. But I really want to see her break the record, especially because Margaret Court holds it.)

While the fact that she could break the record within a year speaks volumes of what a great player she's been, it also can't be denied that the state of the tour isn't what it was, say, thirty years ago.

Back then, Martina Navratilova dominated the sport in a way that, possibly, no other athlete dominated his or her sport.  Even though people expected her to win whenever she played, she faced some formidable competition from the likes of Steffi Graf and Chris Evert.  This is not to say that Serena's opponents are pushovers; I just don't think they quite match up to what Martina faced.

If you were to argue that the women's game was better than the men's, few would have disagreed.  That is the reason why most tennis sports and sports historians agree that Martina was the greatest female player of all time, and more than a few she was the greatest tennis player, male or female, who ever graced a court.

Once Williams retires, women's tennis will revert to the state of affairs that existed before Billie Jean King came along.  And broadcasters, sponsors and the general public won't be nearly as interested as they have been, let alone as interested as they were when Navratilova ruled.

Women's cycling, unfortunately, has had a parallel history.  I can recall a "golden age" for American women, which started roughly with Mary Jane ("Miji") Reoch's prime in the early 1970s and lasted for about two decades, at least until Rebecca Twigg's 1995 victory in the World Championships.

During that time, American male cyclists were on the rise, too:  Greg Lemond, after all, won the Tour de France three times in the late 1980s.  But, although he competed against some strong American male racers, the American women were, on the whole, more dominant and garnered at least as much attention.

Also, toward the end of that period, European women were ascendant.  In fact, a women's version of the Tour de France commenced in 1984 as a curtain-raising event for the men's race.  It ran in various forms, and under various names (the men's Tour organizers sued to keep the women from using "Tour" in the name of their race) for a quarter-century.  

It's telling that when American Marianne Martin won the first edition of that race, she and runners-up Heleen Hage and Deborah Shumway stood on the podium with male winners Laurent Fignon, Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond.  While Fignon won the equivalent of $225,000, Martin was given $1000 and a trophy.

The women's race always had to scramble for sponsorship, even in the best of times.  So, when economic times got tough and sponsors had to cut back on spending, guess what they cut?  As best as I can tell, the men's Tour, as well as the Giro and Vuelta, are still going, even though interest in bike racing overall has declined.

The loss of the women's Tour-equivalent mirrors a situation found all over bike racing, and in sports generally:  When money supplies tighten, women's events are usually sacrificed.  While I don't think the women's tennis tour will disappear, I think we'll see a lot less of it once Serena retires--unless, of course, someone else comes along who's as dominating and compelling as she is.

Fortunately, though, one event is bucking the trend, if in a relatively small way.  The Colorado Classic has featured men's and women's races since it debuted two years ago.  Next year, however, one of them will be eliminated.

It won't be the women's race.

Why?  According to Ken Gart of the RPM Events Group, which organizes the event, the change will allow organizers to set up "one great race instead of two average ones."  Or, as Colorado Governor-Elect Jared Polis said, it could allow the event to turn into "the premier women's race in the Western Hemisphere."

The theory is that by putting all of the resources into one race, longer and more challenging courses could be set up.  Also, as Gart explained, "We love men's cycling...but our ability to impact men's cycling was very minimal."  

One could say he means that the best way to promote women's cycling is to not force it to compete with men's racing.  That might be true, but I think what's more important is that the women's race won't be an adjunct to, or "opening act" for, the men's race, as it was in the women's tour.  

That may well be what women's sports in general needs:  a way to make it interesting and worthwhile in its own right--as women's tennis was in the era of Martina, and women's cycling was in the days of Twigg--and not merely something designed to sink or swim in the trail of men's competition.


  1. One cycling sport where I think the women's side is more interesting is cyclocross. I'm a big Katie Compton fan. She just won her 15th straight US National in Louisville last week. Incidentally she also just turned 40 this month, very inspirational person. I can also name the top ten other competitors off the top of my head. The men? Meh...the only one that comes to mind immediately is Sven Nys and I believe he's retired now.

  2. Phillip--Katie Compton has to be the most unjustly ignore athlete in this country. To be fair, part of the reason is that Americans pay practically no attention to cyclo-cross.