Beautiful tennis. Beautiful women. Statements both subjective by the very nature of the descriptor. But are they?
We pride our sport on its global appeal. Players from Poland to Puerto Rico ostensibly confirm that. Diversity of people should by definition catalyize diversity of interest and opinion. By contrast, the much-anticipated “Beauty Brawl” between Maria Sharapova and Eugenie Bouchard, a pink unicorn found in an advertising executive’s sweetest dream, stridently upheld a distinctly North American standard of aesthetics.
Neither woman can be blamed for originating this sport’s “Blonde Ambition.” A formula dating back to the days of Chris Evert and Tracy Austin, Anna Kournikova revitalized the trend in the late 90s, leaving athletic gaps to be filled by Sharapova’s Wimbledon at Seventeen. The generational beat goes on with Bouchard, who took the court wearing the Russian’s signature Nike apparel, complete with matching visor and ponytail. The 20-year-old Canadian’s form far preceded her content, having made a virtual appearance on the Top Spin 4 video game long before even her junior success, let alone her transition to the senior ranks. It must be clarified that a pair of major semifinals to start the year is no small feat; the earliest prognosticators of her potential are surely more than pleased with her tennis.
The tennis, that which we’re ultimately here to discuss. A marketable face can only get a player so far on the tennis court, after all. But as the subjectivity of beauty becomes more homogenized, so too does the consensus on what makes for pretty tennis or its step-sister, “winning ugly.”
At their best, Sharapova and Bouchard played confident tennis on Court Philippe Chatrier yesterday afternoon. That confidence allowed for effective tennis. Conducive as these qualities might be to “winning tennis,” neither necessarily translates to “beautiful tennis.”
The road to the top of any sport is paved with flashes of brilliance and bouts of inconsistency, the latter allowing for a more unvarnished look at style of play and technique. It is no surprise, then, that the Bouchard paradox became apparent almost immediately. While she will no doubt effortlessly move product vis-à-vis endorsements in the aftermath of her major successes, her attempts to move a tennis ball are decidedly less graceful. Stiff, robotic, and jerky are more applicable, and that’s only her backhand.
Seeing her quietly land screaming winners against Sharapova was reminiscent of another aesthetically gifted, technically questionable youngster, one who rode a similar wave of confidence to within moments of a French Open final. Just as Bouchard tested Sharapova yesterday, Czech prodigy Nicole Vaidisova had Svetlana Kuznetsova on the ropes in 2006. With a loopy forehand that showed off her impressive wingspan, the tall teen got even closer to victory than the Canadian, spurning a match point-earning putaway with a smile.
A place among the sport’s elite need not belie one’s flaws. Sharapova herself would probably trade her eye teeth for a reliable serve. Even excluding the bane of her existence, the efficacy of her overall shot production varied with the wind against Bouchard. Deep set-up shots one minute became cannon fodder for the Canadian the next, forcing the Russian behind the baseline, abdicating her athletic agency. She would find better range as the match wore on, but Sharapova earned a third straight French Open final more from grit and determination than any serve or volley.
For her part, Bouchard mirrored Sharapova inside as much as out. Her boldness, sometimes perceived as brashness, hardly wavered even as her one set lead slipped away. Where the Canadian believed she could win, the Russian was equally staunch in the knowledge that she would not lose. Cries of “C’MON!” drowned out encouraging applause from the French crowd who had found a kindred spirit in the underdog with the Francophone surname. There was no mentor/mentee pretense about this match-up as had existed ahead of encounters between Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens; playing the archetypal reality show villains, neither Sharapova nor Bouchard came to court to make friends.
Nicole Vaidisova is living proof of the dark side of confidence-based tennis. As losses piled up for the Czech, there was no technical foundation on which she could rely, and she retired wounded and disillusioned less than four years after her bombastic run to the Roland Garros semis. Maria Sharapova too has played her share of ugly matches over the years, likely losing more than she may have preferred. But the Russian has an innate confidence, one readily becoming apparent in Bouchard as well. Combine that with a burning desire to succeed, and the results, ugly as they may be to watch – particularly if the two are playing one another – remain undeniably compelling.
The irony of beautiful women playing ugly tennis is inconsequential. The expectation for women in any field to fret over aesthetics is sexist. The fire shown by two athletes determined to reach the pinnacle of their sport is inspiring.