How did women’s tennis get so boring? Sitting slack-jawed through yesterday’s stuporous semifinals, I had to wonder. Not so long ago, in the nineties up through the early aughts, I watched only women’s tennis, the men of the era having abandoned themselves to a literal arms race to see whose serve could break the sound barrier, which, needless to say, wasn’t much fun to watch. Whereas the women were a feisty, rivalrous lot whose styles were packed with personality: Monica, Steffi, Jennifer, Martina, Lindsay, Venus, Serena, Kim, Justine … The mere fact that they are all as recognizable by their first names as their last says a lot compared with where we are today.
Though this litany prompts the question: Is the problem the perceived lack of personality on the WTA tour, the absence of recognizable names and faces who reliably sprout up on our screens four times a year (or three — does anybody remember to watch the Australian? Me, I always forget there’s tennis in January) to renew their fortnightly claim on our attention? If so, such scratching of the nostalgic itch begins to feel like mere nativism: If only you weren’t all blonde and Russian, if only your surnames sounded less like shades of the same color and more like a Baskin-Robbins rainbow, we could relate to each of you, we could make your lonely on-court struggles our own. We tennis fans like to think of ourselves as a mite more cosmopolitan than this.
Or maybe, instead of blaming the collapse of communism for unleashing the Russkie hordes out of the steppe, we should be looking at the way the game has evolved. Quite simply, the women’s game lacks variety, variability. Tennis, like expressively performed classical music, must not be played in strict time; it needs a little rubato here and there. That is, it needs moments when the tattoo of traded groundstrokes slows down or speeds up. In a word, it needs the slice.
The slice — almost always a backhand shot, but occasionally also a forehand — is the change-up of tennis, the shot that keeps your opponent honest. It has myriad tactical uses: The backspin it imparts to the ball causes it to travel slower through the air, giving the slicer more time to get back to the middle of the court in preparation for the next shot; the spin also causes the ball to “bite” or skid, staying low, making it more difficult for their opponent to get under the ball enough to generate the spin and power necessary for an aggressive riposte. And because it’s hit by coming from slightly above the ball rather than from below, as with topspin, a slice is often the only feasible reply to a low ball.
Because the slice is especially handy on grass, where the ball tends to skid anyway and the bounce is lower than on tennis’s other two surfaces, Wimbledon is its ideal showcase. Every male player worth his whites can call upon a slick, low, biting slice in time of need. Indeed, the lulling effect of Bernard Tomic’s slice was widely credited with keeping Djokovic bewilderedly off balance during the first few sets of their quarterfinal match. Last but not least, a well-struck slice is elegant and pleasing to watch: The ball is carved rather than smashed with one hand not two, and its calm, unhurried, razor-straight trajectory is a welcome counterpoint to the ubiquity of looping topspin.
Sadly, the women’s game long ago abandoned the slice in pursuit of its own arms race toward faster serves, ever more garish grunts, and the most bruising, two-handed backhand. The ladies now pound through points with the subtlety of bar-band drummers in thrall to 4/4 time. Likely champion Maria Sharapova is as culpable as any for this parlous state of affairs. We can only hope that the de-stressing effects of winning a fourth Grand Slam, not to mention marriage, will give steely Maria license to loosen up, start beboppin’ and scattin’ with a fuller repertoire of shots, and pipe the tune that leads the ladies out of their cul-de-sac.