The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Stephanie Livaudais, December 24, 2019

The best of women’s tennis in 2019 — Watch the WTA Shot of the Year — Must-click links

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The Best of Tennis in 2019

Happy holidays to all The IX subscribers!

I hope everyone is enjoying the season and getting to spend time with their loved ones. I’m writing you from sunny Florida where I’m spending the holidays with my family. It’s been a lot of fun bringing you the best of women’s tennis every week on Tennis Tuesdays. I joined a bit late in the game in October as Lindsay Gibbs stepped down to go kick ass at Power Plays, but I feel like I’ve found my feet as the weeks went by. I’m excited to do even more in 2020, and my DMs are open for all feedback and insight. 

So much has happened this WTA season, it’s hard to condense it all into a neat roundup. As I’ve been writing this, the word that keeps coming up is “historic”: from an unprecedented streak of parity at the first 18 tournaments of the year to a record-setting payday at the WTA Finals, women’s tennis has achieved a lot this season. And there’s a lot more to be excited about for the future with so many young stars breaking through and established champions determined to hold them off.

For this 2019 year in review, I’m going to lay out my favorite moments and storylines from the year, in vaguely chronological order. You’ll also get my favorite interview of the year with a women’s tennis researcher, as well as the best links from 2019. I’m replacing Tweet of the Week with Shot of the Year, which was just announced and is definitely worth a watch or two (or three). Enjoy!

18 different champions crowned at 18 consecutive events: The 2019 season started out in unprecedented fashion, with a historic streak of 18 different champions winning at the first 18 tournaments of the year. It was a run that spanned four months and multiple surfaces, broken only when Sydney winner Petra Kvitova lifted her second trophy in Stuttgart in April. The variety of title winners was significant too, including top players like Ashleigh Barty (Miami), Naomi Osaka (Australian Open) and Karolina Pliskova (Brisbane), as well as multiple teenage champions including Bianca Andreescu (Indian Wells), Dayana Yastremska (Hua Hin) and Amanda Anisimova (Bogota).

Ashleigh Barty’s surprise Roland Garros win: Barty’s Grand Slam coronation this year was as unexpected as it was inevitable: coming into the clay season, she was far from a favorite despite claiming the Miami Open title, then the biggest of her career. For starters, clay was her least favorite surface: last year, she famously told press, “Every day on clay is one day closer to grass”. She’d also never been past the fourth round of a Grand Slam before this year, but in Paris as the draw fell apart Barty improved with every round to earn her first major win at the French Open. She’d go on to end the season as World No.1, rising to the top of the sport five years after having quit tennis as a teenager.

Simona Halep’s Wimbledon dream comes true: After losing three Grand Slam finals in a row, Halep’s 2018 French Open win was a triumph of her mental strength. But her Wimbledon win was something else entirely, playing nearly-perfect tennis to dismantle Serena Williams 6-2, 6-2 in the final to become the first Romanian to win at the All-England Club. It was her only title of 2019, but Halep was far from disappointed. In fact it’s already the highlight of her career: by her own admission, Roland Garros was the Grand Slam she was expected to win, while Wimbledon was her lifelong dream. With the victory, Halep denied Serena the chance to make history (again) and handed her the most one-sided Grand Slam loss of her career. But more importantly, it’s solidified her spot at the top of the game – a place where Halep had never been sure she belonged until now.

The youth revolution kicks off in earnest: Four years after the WTA quietly folded its Rising Stars program, the seeds that were planted there seemed to blossom to life all at once in 2019. There are so many young 20-somethings and teenagers to get excited about, but they’re not satisfied being called the future of women’s tennis: they’re winning big now. We saw 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu take home one of the biggest titles in tennis at the US Open, 20-somethings Osaka and Barty continued their dominance with Grand Slams of their own. Meanwhile, Iga Swiatek (18) struck the WTA’s Shot of the Year, Marketa Vondrousova (19) reached her first Grand Slam final at Roland Garros, Belinda Bencic (22) is healthy and winning titles again, Sofia Kenin (21) racked up the most hardcourt wins of anyone on tour, and the list goes on. And of course, I haven’t even mentioned the buzziest youngster of all…

Call her Coco: Nobody galvanized women’s tennis quite like 15-year-old Coco Gauff did in 2019. Her breakthrough Wimbledon run took her from qualifying to a huge upset over Venus Williams in the main draw. But then she did something that no one quite expected her to do: she kept winning. Gauff reached the fourth and third rounds at Wimbledon and US Open, respectively, and ended the year inside as the youngest member of the WTA’s Top 100 after winning three titles: her first singles trophy in Linz and two doubles wins. Gauff, who shares an agent with Roger Federer and currently trains at the academy of Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ coach, looks well poised to continue her successful transition to the big leagues.

Serena Williams on the brink of 24 (again): For the second year in a row, Serena reached back-to-back Grand Slam finals at Wimbledon and the US Open. It’s an incredible achievement for any tennis player, and even more so for one who turned 38 in September. But once again, for the second year in a row, she ended the season without a trophy. She has continued to wallop top opponents, growing in confidence and presence as tournaments unfolded – but when she’s reached the finals, something strange happens: she’s wilted. There’s no way to calculate the mental toll of playing for history every time you step onto the court, the way Serena does in her quest for a record-tying 24th Grand Slam title. But with her window of opportunity shrinking rapidly, it will be interesting to see what her strategy will be in 2020. 

The rise of Bianca Andreescu: My favorite player of 2019 was Bianca Andreescu, the 19-year-old Canadian who started the year outside the WTA’s Top 150 and wrote herself into the history books after a dominant season. Her unique playing style confounded opponents not used to such casual variety and changes of pace, and at one point she’d racked up a staggering 8-0 win-loss record against Top 10 players. Andreescu carried herself with so much confidence – and dare I say, swagger – and hit her opponents clean off the court, winning Indian Wells in her Premier Mandatory debut, becoming the first Canadian to win the Rogers Cup, and capping it off with a stunning run to the US Open trophy.

Historic payday at WTA Finals: One of the biggest off-court storylines of the year was the WTA Finals’ move from Singapore to Shenzhen, and the staggering prize purse that came along with it: $14 million in total – doubling the previous year’s amount – with $4.75 million of that going to an undefeated champion. It’s the most prize money that’s ever been offered in the history of the sport, and as the debate around pay parity rumbles on, it’s important to highlight that this happened at a women’s tournament. Ultimately, Ashleigh Barty took home the title with one round robin defeat and pocketed $4.42 million, still eclipsing the previous record payout of $3.85 million that the US Open men’s and women’s champions received. 

This Year in Women’s Tennis

German player and multi-hyphenate Andrea Petkovic’s essay for Racquet Magazine was recognized among the Best American Sports Writing of 2019.

Beautiful words about what Simona Halep means to Romania, from her coach Daniel Dobre.

The story of how Serena Williams’ broken racquet (yes, That one) went up for auction earlier this year for more than $20,000.

From Reem Abulleil at GQ Middle East, how Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur is tearing down walls for Arab tennis.

11 years after her debut, New Jersey’s Kristie Ahn finally scored her first main draw Grand Slam victory at the US Open, and opened up to WTA Insider’s Courtney Nguyen on the long journey home.

This is a great interview from my WTA colleague David Kane on the retiring Dominika Cibulkova, the diminutive Slovakian superstar with a giant-slaying game and undisputed queen of elevator selfies.

Christopher Clarey from the New York Times wrote about how Taylor Townsend’s serve-and-volley and Andreescu’s all-court game are bringing back some much-needed variety in playing styles.

The way that World No.1 Naomi Osaka comforted 15-year-old Coco Gauff after their third-round match at the US Open was more than sportsmanship, it was an act of compassion, wrote Louisa Thomas in the New Yorker.

My WTA colleague Alex Macpherson traveled to Ukraine to get a fascinating inside look at the system cranking out champions like Elina Svitolina and Dayana Yastremska.

Speaking of, 19-year-old Yastremska opened up about the traumatic night in Melbourne when her mom nearly lost her eye in a freak accident, and how she pulled it together to win her second career title barely a week later. 

I really enjoyed Forbes’ fun ‘day-in-the-life’ feature on Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the relentlessly positive force of nature who came back from a horrific knee injury at 2017 Wimbledon to win the US Open mixed doubles crown.

Shot of the Year: Iga Swiatek’s wicked dropshot

Five at the IX: Anita Stahl 

My favorite tennis interview of the year didn’t involve a player at all, but it did focus on one in particular: I got the chance to chat with the fabulous Anita Stahl, a doctoral student in feminist studies at UC Santa Barbara where she taught a spring semester class called “Picturing Maria Sharapova: Representation, Gender, and the Global in Elite Sport”. She gave a fascinating perspective on how gender, race, globalization and media intersect in tennis, and uses Sharapova’s career as a reference point to explore those topics. 

I love this kind of research in tennis, so I really enjoyed this one:

Q: So what does a Feminist Studies course on Maria Sharapova look like?

STAHL: My class is about gender, femininity, globalization, labor, immigration, history, race, and media. Maria Sharapova and her role in world culture are a central reference point or case study to explore all those topics carefully and see how they push and pull to create meaning. My class uses Sharapova and how she is seen to further understand how things like gender and nation work as frameworks to understand the world around us. 

My goal is for students to question culture. The point is not for them all to become Sharapova experts, but for them to think through the layered meanings of the culture they consume and are exposed to all the time. The class is structured so that the first class meeting of the week I just cover scholarly work and the second class meeting we use that scholarly work to analyze an aspect of Sharapova’s career. For example, one day students might read French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s work on class and cultural capital, and the second day they would be asked to scroll through Sharapova’s Instagram feed and analyze how she portrays herself in Bourdieu’s terms.

Q. Why did you choose to focus on Maria Sharapova?

STAHL: I have been fortunate to get support in my department that I get to choose classes that work closely with my research. Last year I taught a class on Black feminism [called ‘The Meaning of Serena Williams’], that was really a class about Serena Williams. 

I am fascinated by how powerful Maria Sharapova is. When she was suspended [in 2016], some of the most powerful global organizations commented on it. Her actions, got responses from the United Nations, Nike, the Kremlin, Porsche, and I just find that incredible. She was the highest paid female athlete in the world for eleven years, and that is an incredible achievement that serves as a way to look at things like femininity and media in sport.

Q: But aren’t you focusing too much on just one player?

STAHL: I study and teach about a handful of the most elite women in tennis history. I’m interested in the most powerful: how they got their power, what makes them different, how they use their influence. Love her or hate her, Sharapova has been an extremely powerful figure in tennis for over a decade. I write about Sharapova, Serena Williams, Althea Gibson, Chris Evert, and others because I really believe these individuals have significantly impacted the trajectory of women’s tennis.

Q: Being a tennis fan yourself, how do you separate the “fan” from the “professor” in you and look at these players objectively?

STAHL: Really, I have abandoned any attempts at objectivity and I think that has made my work stronger in some sense. I work a lot with affect theory, with theoretical approaches to feelings or emotions and where they come from. So much of tennis is about nostalgia, excitement, fear, confidence, and to try and make an objective study of something so intimately build on emotion will always fall short.

Journalists, scientists, everybody has biases, but not everybody wants to confront them. Biases that come from privileges and experiences are so often erased, but I believe they are actually formative to what we create and so, ironically, academics need to be more honest about their subjectivity to create more objective work. 

Because I have been a tennis fan, I know some of the feelings that form people’s attachments to tennis or particular players. By asking myself how I developed my own fan attachments, I can better understand tennis fandoms and media.

Q: Switching gears, your dissertation, “Reading Between the Baselines: Global Regimes of Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Elite Women’s Tennis” sounds fascinating. 

STAHL: My dissertation is an analysis of women’s tennis in the Open Era, to see how it works as an expression of and incubator of race, gender, and sexuality globally. In other words, I study how concepts like gender, race, and sexuality are impacted globally by the tour, but also how the tour is impacted by those concepts.

The rivalry between Chrissie and Martina is a great example. Martina forced so many people to reckon with female masculinity, while she and Chrissie were also very much pigeon-holed into existing identities that created the juxtaposition that rendered them opposites. 

Another fascinating case study is how Serena Williams confronts racism. Mostly, Americans have a very narrow conception of Blackness that is specific to the US, but Serena is not simply an American. She has traveled the world for decades and her Blackness does not carry the same meaning in France as it does in Australia, the US, or Brazil. The meanings of race and gender are socially constructed, they aren’t just facts of the body, so as a person travels through time and space, the meanings of their body changes in ways that may not be noticeable in an ordinary life lived in any one location.

Q: After so many years of studying women’s tennis, what sets the WTA apart from other elite women’s sports leagues?

STAHL: What the WTA has done, is really work through the complexities of gendered expectations and managed to play all sides more effectively than any other professional women’s sports league.

From the beginning, the WTA was not shy about advertising femininity and the sport’s middle and upper class background allowed for that. So much about sport, inherently, is about confidence, aggression, and a competitive nature. These aren’t qualities that are historically nurtured in femininity. However, associated with country clubs and the leisure class, with a lack of physical contact between players, tennis managed to avoid being labelled as ‘masculine’ and ‘lesbian’ the way so many other women’s sports quickly were. 

The WTA allows people to see what they want to see. If you want to see aggressive competition, traits more commonly associated with men, you can find that in tennis, you can see some of the most athletic and physically imposing women. If you want to see a family-friendly, delicate precision, that’s there too. Tennis has such a range of bodies and gender expressions and no uniforms to obscure individuality, and so it allows any fan to see themselves in players.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Stephanie Livaudais, @Livaudais
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal High Post Hoops
Thursdays: Golf
By Carly Grenfell, @Carlygren
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by The IX Team