Friday, July 6, 2012

Serena vs. Aga: Brawn vs. Brain?

Already I can hear the comments, can't you? I'm anticipating the pre-match prattle which I fully expect to feature themes of how large and powerful and aggressive Serena Williams is, and how slender and lithe and frail Radwanska is, so that the only reason why Serena will crush her in the finals is because of Serena's brute force. The commentators – several of them American – will say that with her big serve and huge groundstrokes, Serena will dominate the more finesse-driven game of the Pole. It's the Hingis era all over again, isn't it?

Already the New York Times has chimed in with pithy comments about the “precision” and deft “touch” of Radwanska's game, as opposed to the way that the “muscular” Serena prefers to “bludgeon” the ball. The underlying message seems to be that Serena just hits wildly, going for broke with no accuracy or precision, blasting the ball with abandon. While Radwanska of course is the “tidy” and precise player who uses “subtlety” as she constructs points, all while being “shrewd” and “practical”.

You get the picture. It's Jill vs. the Beanstalk all over again. And really, it pisses me off, because underlying these comments is a deeply racist tone that you may have to be Black and/or have minority blood coursing through your veins, to appreciate. History is littered with the corpses of Black athletes whose success was reduced to a matter of brawn. When a Black athlete happens to be intelligent as well as big and strong, it is assumed that she wins not because she is the more strategic of the two players, but because of the sinews and muscles in her body. And that assumption is deeply offensive.

There is NO tennis player currently on either side of the tour who wins tournaments entirely because of brute force. If that was the case, Roddick would have won a gazillion Slams by now. Really I can think of no better example of a player whose game was based on brute force with little underlying intelligence in his shot selections. And Roddick, when last I checked, was not only White but also still looking for his Mojo. His big serve and bigger forehand have yielded decreasingly few results on the tour. If he wasn't already rich as dirt, he'd probably be playing Challenger events this time next year.

My point being that brute force does not a top player make. The best players in the world have the ability to combine physical force with brilliant intelligence. It is the combination of brawn and brain that causes players to rise to the top. That is as true for Radwanska as it is true for Azarenka. Fact.

Wozniacki is a (relative) failure because she lacks both. Lindsey Davenport became successful after she dedicated herself to become physically fitter and stronger – the tennis intelligence had always been there. And Aga Radwanska is in the finals tomorrow not only because of the intelligence of her tennis, but because she dedicated herself to becoming fitter and stronger. Her serve may still be pathetic when compared to Serena's, but it is on average only 12mph slower. And her groundstrokes can be lethal and penetrative in their intensity. She has made it to the top tier of tennis because of her combination of intuitive precision and unexpected explosions of power. It is insulting to her to suggest otherwise.

But come Saturday morning, I anticipate that commentators will start drawing lines in the sand. They will start spouting nonsense about Serena's brute strength. They will offer plaudits to Radwanska's intelligence and finesse. And they will piss me off.

So maybe I'm writing this entry in part to purge myself of the anger that this will induce in me so that I can settle back and watch the match, which I expect to be thrilling because both women seem to be at the top of their game. And may the best woman win.

And if I have managed to make you thoroughly uncomfortable by this point – and talk of race invariably provokes this response – somewhere deep within your gut is the awareness that the Brain-Brawn divide rarely enters the picture when two White women face each other. No-one compared Steffi and Monica in terms of Brain vs. Brawn. No-one did it when Davenport faced Capriati. Nor was this dichotomy a conversation point during the Navratilova vs. Evert era. At least not until Martina hooked up with that man's wife and the world discovered that she was gay, at which point he Brain-Brawn comparisons were calculated to marginalize her for being gay and fo daring to spank the ultra-prissy Chrissy Evert.

But when Aga spanked the ass off a most athletic Kerber, no-one mentioned strength vs. finesse. The subject never came up as she dominated Vesnina and Kirilenko in earlier rounds. But put her up against Serena Williams and all people will talk about is how Aga will need to use her craft and finesse in order to beat Serena.

And really, this is also offensive to Radwanska. She is at the brink of becoming #1 not because she is some kind of frail wall-flower cowering in fear of an American monster, but because of her discovery that simply keeping the ball in play is her best line of defense. And, yes I admit that Serena hits the ball really really hard. But she does not do so mindlessly. Her returns are intentional, focused, and yes, precise. Or does she need to start relying on drop-shots to convince you otherwise?


Doug Messenger said...

Right on, Chica. An exception (partial) has been the media presentation of Kvitova. They put her as a mindless basher when in fact she has sublime touch that she uses in many though not all of her matches.
Get on the media wrong-side and nothing is fair and half-truths masquerade as truths.
Y'all listen up. Chica is right about this.

Karen said...

I loved that Serena used a drop shot to get the 2nd break of serve in the 2nd set. I also loved that one of the highlight shots was a cross court angled backhand that carved into the court on the deuce side that left everyone in open mouthed amazement.

This was a highly strategic match from both players and I am so looking forward to the replay

Anonymous said...

I felt this way too, especially when Serena played Azrenka and I noticed a comment that eluded to the match being pitiful because it was nothing but a display of "force" and not tennis per se. Oh, really as if Serena just moon-walked her way into the Wimbeldon finals. It was if the comment was saying Serena was all piss and vinegar and no brains who got to where she was by luck. Yes 20+ aces and nothing else folks. It burns me up! It's like she's penalized for having a fantastic serve that produces a tennis player's dream shot. To precisely place a ball to get an ace seems very skillful, thoughtful and percise to me. I thought Serena played superbly today. I loved how see seemed to mix the game up with drop shots, and coming to the net more than I tend to see her in highlights. Aga was no shrinking violet. She brought the skill. I was, however struck by the fact that during her speech she mentioned the elements and other factors attributing to her coming up short, and wondered if Serena had done the same what would have happened. Any thoughts Tennis Chick on Chrissy Everett's love/hate read between the lines comments on Serena. [i.e. other players should not be intimadated by her, she's older and needs a day to recover, etc. etc., yet she's argubly has the best serve,
Thank you for this incredible blog and for languaging the things I often felt but could never be sure or had the courage to say.

tennischick said...

Thanks for your comments.

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