Tennis needs to do more to show that women’s sport deserves greater exposure

The women’s game is riddled with an unprecedented level of mediocrity, and needs to change.

Last night, Maria Sharapova secured her place in the third round of the Australian Open.

There is nothing unusual about seeing the 25-year-old accomplish such a feat in itself. In fact, it is the seventh time in 11 years that the Russian has safely negotiated her first two games at Melbourne Park.

However, consider this.

In her opening matches, the four-time Grand Slam champion dispatched Olga Puchkova and Misaki Doi in a combined time of less than two hours and without the loss of a single game.

The lay tennis fan would be excused for wondering if either Puchkova or Doi were novices - young players enjoying a first taste of the big time.

Alas, no. Depressingly, both the 21-year-old Doi and 25-year-old Puchkova are currently operating around the world’s top 100 and have well over ten years professional experience between them.

This sort of competitive imbalance in women’s tennis is no longer surprising nor particularly newsworthy, but as part of a tour that comprises 1,200 ranked places, it is hard to fathom that there are 1,100 professional players inferior to the two unable to capture a single game against Sharapova.

Last summer, the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation suggested that as little as three hours in 72 broadcast on Sky Sports one weekend was devoted to women’s sport.

The BBC have made a concerted effort to try and bring stories concerning female sports stars to the top of their agenda. However, most of these have been relating to perceived inequalities and injustices in funding and exposure - actual sports news has been pretty much the sole preserve of Olympic and tennis stars.

Ten years ago next week, Serena Williams secured her first Australian Open title and with it completed the "Serena Slam" of all four major tennis crowns.

Today, Williams remains at the forefront of the women’s game, despite being beset by injury, misfortune and controversy; younger, fresher foes have been unable to topple her.

This supremacy need not necessarily be a negative thing - Roger Federer’s time at the top has coincided almost exactly with that of the younger Williams sister and there are no suggestions that his successes are bad for the sport.

The two sides of the sport have exchanged supremacy at different points over the last 40 years, however, with the men’s game now perhaps stronger than it ever has been, the women’s game is riddled with an unprecedented level of mediocrity and a major identity crisis.

Style has replaced substance as, to name but a few, Agnieszka Radwańska, Caroline Wozniacki and Dinara Safina have all cashed in on high rankings without ever looking like breaking their Grand Slam drought, attracting scorn as a result.

Martina Hingis, herself a serial winner from the age of 14, has attacked regulations preventing younger players indulging in more WTA tour events in their early teens - Hingis suggesting that this limitation only serves to stunt growth and ensure that older players rule the roost for longer.

Williams, Sharapova and a string of one-off older champions have dominated the roll of honour in recent years - Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova being the only notable exceptions to this worrying trend.   

This is particularly pertinent when discussing Williams Jr. The 31-year-old has dramatically reduced her playing schedule over the last four years, limiting herself to no more than a handful of events outside of Grand Slams.

Leaving the younger set to squabble over the considerably less popular regular events on the WTA tour, the American, injury permitting, returns to decimate the field on her way to more limelight when the circus comes to town.

The perceived contempt with which Williams treats low importance events on the tour is legendary, but in truth there is no real incentive for the 15-time Slam winner to expand her horizons.  

This is not an argument about the merits of offering male and female players the same prize-money for differing levels of work - a concept that has always irked many on the ATP tour - however, with all the financial riches in tennis, it is perhaps a little dispiriting to look elsewhere in the sports world and see top level female athletes bobbing around the breadline when deeply mediocre tennis players are able to make a very comfortable living.

In truth, there are only four opportunities each year to push claims for greater exposure and, outside of a major year in athletics, it is fair to suggest that these weeks are crucial if a broadcaster is to decide to take a punt on other areas of female-only competition.

That said, financial stress is not the sole preserve of women’s sport. Snooker’s golden child Judd Trump complained in an interview with the Daily Telegraph last week that there simply wasn’t enough money in his sport for all of the top players to make a sustainable living.

Whereas Trump could do with a lesson in microeconomics, it isn’t hard to understand those who believe women’s tennis to be a rare exception to a rule whereby their hefty financial recompense does not mirror contribution to their sport.

Barry Hearn, the sports promoting supremo, is doing his best to shake up the archaic snooker calendar and disrupt the established order to make a generally fringe sport more appealing to the masses.

Women’s tennis, and the bloated-gravy train that it has become, must be treated in the same way. 

The whole tennis world needs to acknowledge the malaise; else, if a revolution is not forthcoming, you have to fear that the shot at readjusting the broadcast imbalance between the sexes will slide long.

Serena Williams serving during her first round match at the 2013 Australian Open. Photograph: Getty Images

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear