There tends to be a musical tinge to the typical tennis discussion. The rhythm of a match. The balletic brilliance of a player. The crescendo of a crowd. Our athletes tend to be lithe of limb, and the most memorable move about the court with effortless grace.
Why, then, does such poetic motion fail on the dance floor?
Take British Fed Cup Captain Judy Murray, for example. The mother and former coach of one of her country’s brightest stars is the latest member of the tennis world to trade in sneakers for dancing shoes, participating in the twelfth season of Strictly Come Dancing. The charismatic Captain is known for her sharp wit and outgoing personality, and seemed like a perfect fit for a program that pairs popular figures with professional dancers to form ballroom powerhouses. Yet Murray has struggled from the onset of the competition, earning the lowest combined score after two performances and tying the eliminated team for second lowest this past week. Dancing a Quickstep with partner Anton du Beke, an ironically dry rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” – where were the rain delay references, people?? – was only made more uncomfortable when the live singer lost his breath mid-refrain. Murray looked visibly concerned that she might trip on her long dress and, in spite of a lengthy shoulder warm-up, looked stiff throughout.
Though she’s unlikely to remain in the competition much longer, her staying power has already dwarfed a trio of others who’ve taken part in Strictly and its American equivalent, Dancing with the Stars. Though athletes have tended to dominate celebrity dance competitions, tennis players like Monica Seles, Martina Hingis, and Martina Navratilova were each the first to go from their respective season. From video evidence, it doesn’t take too long to uncover why:
Monica Seles, DWTS Season 6 (2008)
Nine-time Grand Slam champion Monica Seles was among the first to dive into Dancing; not long after officially announcing her retirement from the sport, the Serbian-born American joined the cast of Season 6 of Dancing with the Stars along with NFL star Jason Taylor and figure skating’s Olympic Gold Medalist, Kristi Yamaguchi. While her athletic competition made it all the way to the end, Seles stumbled at the first hurdle, scoring the lowest combined total in two performances and was summarily sent home along with magician Penn Jilette.
Seles was never known for her on-court grace; instead famous for her all-out attack, the former No. 1 looked to be taking on this new challenge with gusto but, like Murray, came off stiff and awkward despite her best efforts.
Martina Hingis, Strictly Season 7 (2009)
Unlike Seles, Hingis was a player who relied on her superior movement and anticipation to top the WTA rankings for an astounding 209 weeks – a feat only recently surpassed by Serena Williams. The odds-on favorite to win the seventh season of Strictly Come Dancing, Hingis was unsurprisingly confident: “Everything I do, I do to win; I am very competitive.” But like her rival, the Swiss Miss was bounced after just two dances and was the first to leave the competition. Scoring in the middle of the pack, Hingis’ early departure likely had more to do with the public voting aspect of the competition; a one-time singles winner at Wimbledon, the five-time Grand Slam champion undoubtedly lacked the name recognition of British TV personalities like Chris Hollins and Ricky Whittle, who went one-and-two in the final standings.
Still, the perennial Comeback Kid looked far from comfortable with partner Matthew Cutler. Where Seles at least appeared to be enjoying herself, the ever-present mocking grin on the Hingis countenance betrayed a hint of embarrassment, or perhaps an all-too-glaring recognition of the spectacle of it all. If her run to the US Open doubles final didn’t convince you that Martina Hingis belongs on a tennis court, give her Rumba a roll.
Martina Navratilova, DWTS Season 14 (2012)
It was hard not to be of two minds when it was announced that ageless wonder Martina Navratilova had entered the fourteenth season of Dancing. Blessed with a potent mix of discipline and determination, Navratilova has inspired many with her dedication to fitness and will to play professional tennis into her fifties. Though fleet of foot at her peak and graceful in her efficiency, she was always seen as the more masculine counterpart to rival Chris Evert, who played a more stereotypically “feminine” style of tennis. Still, this was a woman who knew how to defy the odds. The Czech-American conquered breast cancer in 2010 and attempted a climb to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro a mere four months later. Was there anything she couldn’t do?
According to the judges and fans at home, dance.
Like Seles, Navratilova trailed the field and suffered an opening round loss that was as devastating as it was rare. The nine-time Wimbledon champion has shown enough tenacity throughout her life that it’s easy to think she would have improved with a few more weeks of practice. Ultimately, her loss is our gain; Navratilova stepped off the dance floor and back into the commentary booth, spilling pearls of wisdom for those who tune in to hear her cover major league matches.
Did these athletes deserve to go home so early? How far will Judy Murray go on this season’s Strictly? Sound off in the comments!