I may have mentioned in the past that I'm not the biggest fan of the Williams sisters. Neither of them plays particularly beautiful tennis (although they're both much more complete players than they were even four years ago) and while Venus seems kind of sweet, in her way, Serena seems . . . how to put this? . . . less so.
Which brings us to yesterday's seven-hour (with rain delays) affair. Serena was playing the over-matched Daniela Hantuchova (Galley Friend M.G. refers to her as Hotuchova, see below), winning the first set handily. Late in the second set, Serena suffered a ghastly muscle cramp in her calve--you could see the muscle bulging out and when she initially started whacking at it with her racket to try to break the cramp it made me a little queasy. That's painful stuff.
After an injury timeout, Serena stumbled through the end of the set, losing it. After rain delays, they came back for the third and Serena, improbably, steamrolled Hantuchova. Along the way, she limped a lot. But she moved pretty well when she had to. At one point, she made a big stink about needing a bathroom break before a Hantuchova service game. Per the rules, her request was denied. After the game, the umpire asked if she needed the loo. Miraculously, she did not.
But what struck me through all of this is that Hantuchova only drop-shotted Serena once, rarely hit wide, spinning serves, and, in general, played as if she didn't quite know what to do with a seemingly injured opponent. Give her high marks for sportsmanship, even with Serena grunting and screaming and Richard Williams jumping around in the players' box like a crazed soccer fan.
All of which is prelude to the following question: The top rank of current women's players are a particularly ruthless lot: Serena, Venus, Sharapova, Henin. They employ all sorts of gamesmanship, they show none of the quarter that Hantuchova displayed against Serena, and they almost never look like they're having fun. Why is that?
You don't see that among the top men's players, where Federer, Rafa, Roddick, and most of the elites display the normal balance of anguish, frustration, and euphoria. (There are exceptions: see Hewitt, Leyton.) You certainly didn't see that among the last crop of great women--Hingis, Clijsters, Davenport. I wonder what's in the air in the women's locker room these days.
Whatever it is, I wish it would go away. Sports aren't fun to watch if you get the sense that the players aren't having fun. Not everything is snakes and ladders, of course and I admire competitive drive as much as the next guy. But even Federer and Sampras gave you wry smiles every once in a while on court, as if to say, "Hey, can you believe that?"
I don't think I've ever seen Maria Sharapova smile during a match. Ditto for Serena. The only time Justine Henin smiles is when she's trying to get away with something. Dourness is not--or at least should not be--a prerequisite for success. There will always be Thomas Muster's in the game, but the top players should be better than that.
51 minutes ago