At the end of her autobiography, all-time tennis great Martina Navratilova wrote, “I didn’t know how I was going to make the world better, but I knew I was going to try.”
Ever since she established the Martina Youth Foundation in 1983 to provide disadvantaged children with greater opportunities, Navratilova has championed a wide variety of causes. She cares deeply about women’s and animal rights and environmental issues and has been a longtime member of the Sierra Club and PETA and has given money to Greenpeace. Navratilova and actress Doris Day produced ads denouncing steel-jaw animal traps. She’s also served on Planned Parenthood’s board of directors.
As one of the world’s most famous gay athletes, Navratilova made the most impact on this front when she gave a moving speech before 500,000 people at the 1993 Gay and Lesbian March in Washington, D.C. In recognition of her advocacy, Navratilova received the 2000 National Equality Award from the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest gay and lesbian activist lobbying group. In 2014, Athlete Ally, an organisation that campaigns for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, honoured her with an Action Award.
With all these bona fides, what’s not to like about this longtime benefactor and dedicated advocate for worthy causes?
Then, in a February 17 column in The Sunday Times (UK), the outspoken Navratilova further infuriated trans people. She wrote: “A man can decide to be female, take hormones if required by whatever sporting organisation is concerned, win everything in sight and perhaps earn a small fortune, and then reverse his decision and go back to making babies if he so desires. It’s insane and it’s cheating. I am happy to address a transgender woman in whatever form she prefers, but I would not be happy to compete against her. It would not be fair.”
Rachel McKinnon, the first transgender woman to win a world track cycling title, fired back, tweeting: “It’s a wild fantasy worry that is an irrational fear of something that doesn’t happen. An irrational fear of trans people? Transphobia.”
Athlete Ally quickly dropped the 62-year-old Navratilova as an ambassador for its LGBTQ athletic advocacy group. It called her comments “transphobic, based on a false understanding of science and data, and perpetuate dangerous myths that lead to the ongoing targeting of trans people through discriminatory laws, hateful stereotypes and disproportionate violence.”
Navratilova apologised on her website to those who found her comments objectionable, though she didn’t yield much ground. “I know that my use of the word ‘cheat’ caused particular offence among the transgender community,” she wrote. “I’m sorry for that because I certainly was not suggesting that transgender athletes in general are cheats. I attached the label to a notional case in which someone cynically changes gender, perhaps temporarily, to gain a competitive advantage. We should not be blind to the possibility, and some of these rules are making that possible and legal.”
But what are the odds a man would actually change his gender solely to dominate women in sports?
The first prominent transsexual athlete answered this intriguing question in her 1983 autobiography, Second Serve: The Renee Richards Story . The former Richard Henry Raskind, an eminent ophthalmological surgeon, chronicled his conflicted former secret life — he confided he had lived with another person, a girl, in his body.
Raskind became an excellent sectional amateur tennis player, served as a lieutenant commander in the US Naval Reserve and underwent sex-change surgery. A controversial US federal court decision in 1977 allowed Renee Richards, who was advised by notorious lawyer-fixer Roy Cohn, to compete at US tournaments.
Even though Richards was an ageing 41, some players, like 5’2” Rosie Casals, vociferously protested her playing against women, and a few even defaulted rather than face her. “I looked so damn fearsome at six-feet-one-inch,” Richards recalled. On her so-called “muscle power,” Richards explained, “A man’s muscle mass is sustained by his male hormone, testosterone. Once this is taken away, the muscles change in character… The muscle mass on my body was entirely appropriate for a woman my size, especially a woman athlete.”
Far from dominating, Richards reached a career-high of only No. 20 in singles in her short pro career — though in doubles she reached the 1977 US Open final with Betty Ann Stuart. (In an interesting twist of fate, Richards coached Navratilova when the muscular Czech-American won the 1982 Wimbledon.)
Richards also rejected what she called the “floodgate theory,” which many officials then subscribed to. “If I was allowed to play,” she wrote, “then the floodgates would be opened and through them would come tumbling an endless stream of made-over Neanderthals who would brutalise Chris Evert and Evonne Goolagong. Of course, this was sheer nonsense.”
But would someone not quite good enough in men’s tennis decide to change gender for the money?
“Even if we forget about the arguments concerning loss of strength, this fear is also pretty much groundless,” asserted Richards. “How hungry for tennis success must you be to have your penis chopped off in pursuit of it? How many men would do it for a million dollars? If you could find one, would such a neurotic be likely to have the concentration to play top-flight tennis, even if he didn’t go completely crazy once he’d realised what he’d done.”
More than 40 years after the Richards saga, not a single transsexual player has joined the pro tour.
But what about an intersex player?
In 2009, Sarah Gronert, a 22-year-old German born with both male and female characteristics, was approved by both the International Tennis Federation (ITF) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) to compete on their tours. When she was 19, the comely blonde hermaphrodite underwent surgery to remove her male genitalia. After that, she was legally a woman.
After Gronert won a “minor league” ITF event in Israel in March 2009, Schlomo Tzoref, the coach of a player beaten by Gronert there, told the New York Daily News , “There is no girl who can hit serves like that, not even Venus Williams. This is not a woman, it’s a man.”
When Richards was asked about the Gronert case by Advocate.com in April 2009, she totally repudiated the views she had expressed in her autobiography. Richards also said the judge in her 1976 legal case rightly stated that future cases should be treated on an individual basis and that her case should not be viewed as setting a precedent.
“He did this mainly because of my age — 41 — knowing that I was not going to take all the prize money away from Chrissie (Chris Evert), Tracy (Austin), Martina (Navratilova),” Richards wrote in an email. “Since that time, whenever I have been consulted, I always hark back to his decision, and then warn that someday a good player, 22 years old, would come along and dominate the game. Has that happened now? I have warned about this for years.”
Once again, the hysteria and fears far exceeded the reality. No world-beater, Gronert never qualified for the main draw at a Grand Slam event, peaked at No. 164, and earned just $96,258 prize money.
In another controversial case mixing science, sports and gender politics, two-time Olympic 800m champion Caster Semenya hopes to overturn the eligibility rules for hyperandrogenic athletes proposed by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Though born a girl, the South African has masculine characteristics in her physical appearance and has a deeper voice, which caused some people to question her gender.
The IAAF, track and field’s governing body, wants to require women with naturally elevated testosterone to lower their levels with medication before being allowed to compete in world-class races from 400m to one mile. Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba and Kenya’s Margaret Wambui, who finished behind Semenya in the 800m event at the Rio Olympics, also elicited suspicions about their testosterone levels.
Navratilova, in her Sunday Times column, supported Semenya, writing, “Can it be right to order athletes to take medication? What if the long-term effects proved harmful?”
An appeal case that started on February 18 was heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The verdict is expected in late March. Norton Rose Fulbright, the law firm representing Semenya, said in a statement: “She asks that she be respected and treated as any other athlete: Her genetic gift should be celebrated, not discriminated against.”
United Nations human rights experts championed Semenya’s case. Last year they made their case in a 4,584-word letter to IAAF president Sebastian Coe.
Athlete Ally and Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) also strongly supported Semenya. More than 60 well-known athletes, including tennis legend and WSF founder Billie Jean King, signed an open letter from these two organisations calling on the IAAF to rescind a discriminatory regulation that would force women to alter their bodies in order to compete in a sport they’ve dedicated their lives to.
The letter argued that discrimination against Semenya undermines the spirit of sport and violates the fourth fundamental principle of the Olympic Charter, to which the IAAF adheres:
“The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”
The most persuasive passage in the letter denounced “the recently announced regulations that discriminate against female athletes with naturally elevated testosterone that would require them to undergo medically unnecessary interventions to lower their testosterone levels as a precondition of participation in sport.”
It rightly argued, “No woman should be required to change her body to compete in women’s sport.”
Whatever ethical and legal positions one takes on these controversial cases, I find it impossible to refute that.
Is this the sport we want?
“There are some very valuable things of the past that have been lost in the wild scramble for speed and power,” warned 1920s superstar Bill Tilden in 1950.
The trend towards greater power at the expense of versatility, finesse and tactics that alarmed Tilden has been accelerated during the last half of the 20th century. The main causes are the tremendous advances in racquet and string technology, the widespread adoption of the Western forehand and two-handed backhand, and the emergence of taller, stronger athletes.
Following Tilden’s theme, my 1998 essay, “Overkill! — The Power Crisis Facing Tennis,” started with this dire prediction:
“Fast-forward to the 2020 Wimbledon Championships. Ace Jordan, the 6’9” son of basketball legend Air Jordan, is literally taking apart 7’1” Killer Ivanadisco in the fifth set of their vicious final on Centre Court.
“Although Killer earned his nickname by knocking unconscious a line judge and a doubles opponent with errant 175-mile-per-hour serves, he’s taking a terrible beating now. Ace has knocked him down 14 times — 11 requiring emergency medical treatment — with rocket serves that smacked him in the groin, mouth, stomach, and eye. Bloodied and groggy, Killer finally throws in the towel after holding serve at 21-all in the fifth set, and Ace, with a record-breaking 83 aces, prevails.
“The future of tennis? Not if sanity prevails — but perhaps it will be if men’s tennis keeps evolving from a sport of diverse styles and stylists to one of brutish power and vanishing rallies.”
That apocalyptic future has arrived. All too often NBA-sized giants — seven of the top 15 players stand 6’6” or taller — now whack ace after monotonous ace. In many matches, they predictably hold serve every game until a succession of tiebreakers decides the match. For example, at the New York Open in February, 6’11.5” Reilly Opelka outlasted 6’10” John Isner 6-7 (8), 7-6 (14), 7-6 (4). Opelka belted 43 aces and Isner 38 to set a record for the most combined aces, 81, in a best-of-three-set match. Long rallies (10 or more shots) and even medium-length rallies (five to nine shots) were almost non-existent, as 34 percent of the points ended abruptly with unreturnable serves.
Another giant, 6’11” Ivo Karlovic, who turned 40 on February 28, has lost little speed off the rocket serve that set a world record of 156mph in 2011. This January, Karlovic reached the Tata Open Maharashtra final in Pune, India, playing yet another all-tiebreaker duel (7-6, 6-7, 7-6), losing to 6’8” Kevin Anderson, another master blaster. The towering Croat, not surprisingly, holds single-match ace records for the ATP Tour (45), Australian Open (75), French Open (55), US Open (61) and Davis Cup (78).
An almost-inevitable result of all these aces and tiebreakers are marathon matches, and Isner holds an unbreakable record — we hope! — of 113 aces in the most famous (and soporific) marathon. That crazy total came against Nicolas Mahut in their 2010 Wimbledon first-round endurance test that lasted three days and ended with an even crazier 70-68 fifth set.
The buxom, seductive actress Mae West once quipped, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” Like Mae, we all want to have fun, but there’s no fun watching a profusion of booming aces end points when they barely begin.
Keep in mind that in men’s tennis “action time” — when the ball is in play — already constitutes only 10-15 percent of the total match time, far less than the 35-40 percent in basketball, football, ice hockey and soccer. We get more “action time” and excitement from rallies created by talented, versatile, tactical athletes. Conversely, we get more “dead time” and boredom from aces, which take only 0.6 seconds to whiz past defenceless opponents.
Is this really the sport we want? And if it isn’t, what should the lords of tennis do about it?
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