Alex Bowmer talks to former top-30 player and Eurosport pundit Annabel Croft about gender quality in tennis, the state of the British game, and potential stars of the future.
Q: Has women’s tennis done enough to address inequality between the sexes? It seems to be one of the only sports where men and women enjoy fairly equal status.
A: Billie-Jean King has been one of the main drivers behind the foundation of the WTA and is a big reason why women are now able to make their living from playing tennis. All the players have her to thank for the fact that the tour even exists. She fought for women to have equal prize money, because I think she felt she was as marketable and putting as many bums on seats as the men were. Now they offer equal prize money in the Grand Slams, and in Dubai. However, the popularity of the women’s game has dropped a bit recently, but I think the interest is coming back with the emergence of all these new youngsters. I definitely think tennis is the only sport where women have equal prize money in many tournaments. However, it’s not true that all tournaments offer equal prize money, and it has to be said that quite often the turnout for the week is quite a bit higher for men than women.
Q: What more needs to be done to address inequality?
A: One of the things women are fighting when they play at tournaments like Miami and Indian Wells – where the men’s and women’s tournaments are held at the same time – is centre court coverage and airtime on TV. The tournament scheduler has a difficult situation to contend with, as he has to listen to demands of players like Federer, Djokovic and Nadal on the one hand, and players like Sharapova, Williams and Wozniacki, so it is difficult to accommodate everyone. The scheduler also has to consider the TV audiences around the world as well, and therefore has to think about which matches will appeal to the American market. Serena Williams is a respected player, but if she is not scheduled to play that day, you’ve got the WTA fighting for their players because they want the TV coverage. These events are definitely market-driven.
Q: Which female players would you say have done the most to push women’s issues to the fore?
A: Venus Williams is a player who has done a lot for women in that respect. She has spoken up and taken quite a prominent role. She seems to enjoy standing up for women, and has appeared on the board at the WTA, and has had a big say in some of these matters. It’s interesting, because I didn’t think she would be someone who would get involved in that sort of thing.
Q: Would you be a supporter of five-set matches in the women’s game?
A: I am not in favour of it actually. They tried it in America a few years ago when Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova were at the top of their game, and introduced it at the end-of-season championships. It wasn’t popular and also became very difficult for TV to schedule it, and when I had to cover Dubai and then, the following week, the men’s matches and the women’s matches, so this is why the American TV company who aired the end-of-season championships dropped it.
I am sympathetic with people who argue that it may be unfair that someone playing best-of-five sets earns the same amount. Given the fitness levels of the modern player, if there was a serious offer put on the table about women playing five sets, then I’m sure most players would accept it, but there just isn’t the demand from the public. Also, when I watch men play five-set matches at Grand Slams, when you consider how injured a lot of players a lot of the players are getting, it’s not worth it. It’s not like footballers who turn up once a week and play a match. Tennis players are playing once every other day, and sometimes back-to-back matches, so you can imagine if you play five hours per day, and then come back and play five hours the next day.
Q: Why do you think Britain has struggled to produce top-level players consistently, compared to countries like France and Spain?
A: I don’t feel that we always have enough competition at an early age. If you have enough breaking through then we all have push each other. When I was growing up I had loads of juniors around me that were were pushing all the time. You’re fighting for your position all the time, and the trouble is that we only have one or two on the men’s and women’s side. Heather Watson did have Laura Robson as competition, but Laura’s been injured for over a year, and it’s really hard to sustain motivation in that situation. As a junior, I went abroad and Heather went abroad to train, I went to America when I was 15, and it’s really tough to train back here in this kind of climate and condition. Then when I went to Florida it was 80% humidity, and you feel sick on court because you have no energy, or you’re not used to that sort of heat. I think it’s impossible not to train there and acquit yourself well in these tough conditions all over the world. It is also tough to keep playing tournaments locally over here, whereas in Spain, if you go to Barcelona they have hundreds of tournaments for parents to take their kids to and the level is very high.
Q: Who are the rising stars of women’s tennis that we should be looking out for?
A: Madison Keys is one, and Karolina Pliskova, who got to the finals in Dubai. She’s 22, and a rising star; she has the most phenomenal serve. She’s a slightly late developer, but now her tennis is really starting to come good and she has had a fantastic start to the year. She’s served over 100 aces already this year, which is right up there. Her service motion is very similar to Serena Williams’, in that it’s very smooth and very fluid. Keys is someone I really like. There’s another girl called [Belinda] Bencic, who is only 17, and she got to the fourth round of the US Open last year. She’s got a really calm head on her. Eugenie Bouchard was someone who rose through the ranks last year, and reached three Grand Slam semi-finals, including the final at Wimbledon. This year is going to be very difficult for her, as it’s always difficult to replicate the performances from a breakthrough year, as now all eyes will be on her. She was overpowered by Kvitova in last year’s final, but it was still a great run to the final for her. Some have questioned whether her technique is quite as good as it should be, but she certainly makes up for that with her determination.
Do any of those that you have mentioned have a chance of Grand Slam success?
I don’t know about this year, but having said that, women’s tennis is in an interesting period. At the moment, Serena Williams is clearly the dominant force in the game. If she plays her best tennis, there is no question that she is the outright favourite for any Grand Slam title this year, and obviously she came out firing on all cylinders in Australia, which she didn’t do the year before. She is clearly still so hungry for the titles because she wants to surpass Steffi Graf, who is on 22 Grand Slams. Serena is on 19, so she could equal that this year, which is very possible. If she suffered an early exit, the field would be blown wide open in women’s tennis. You’ve always got the ‘old guard’ – Sharapova, Azarenka, who is starting to play better tennis again, and obviously Halep, who is becoming more experienced and got to the final of the French Open. I would say that she would be the next favourite to win a Grand Slam after Serena, but after that, I think it is up for grabs. After Bartoli won Wimbledon a couple of years ago, you never know what might happen.
Q: What have you made of Amelie Mauresmo’s progress, and why do you think female players are averse to hiring female coaches?
A: Traditionally, female players have always hit with male players, due to the fact that they tend to hit the ball quite a bit harder, so that when they go back to hitting with female players, they have a lot more time to think. The coaches tend to chop and change, but most are them are established. A number of female players may prefer a male coaching them, as they tend to be more direct in their assessment. What Murray was looking for when he appointed Mauresmo was a more calming influence, which she provided, and she had an ability to listen to him and be sympathetic when he was feeling fatigued, whereas Lendl may not always have been so forgiving. Murray found the approach more sensitive, but the Litmus test for him will be whether he can win a grand slam under his new coach. Murray wants to do as well as he can and feel vindicated in the appointment that he has made. He is also working with a psychologist, and he has been taking all these notes on court, which is a new motivation for him and hugely significant.
Finally, do you think that the game is destined to become increasingly physical?
It’s very, very physical. If any parents ask me for advice on what their child should do to get to the next level, if they wanted to be pro players, and would say that they need to get out and get fitter than they have ever been. It’s almost an athlete’s training, as well as the tennis. It wasn’t really like that, it was far more tennis-based. You used to go for a run and do a few sprints etc., but now, the level of fitness that’s required and the athletic ability, it’s extremely professional. I think that’s equally as important as hitting tennis balls every day.