Steve – I heard a story once about an unnamed low-ranked player on the men’s tour – apparently an asshole (the intimation was that it was Jeff Tarango) once got into an argument with the Williams sisters on a practice court and then ended up playing them. The story went that he beat each of them in succession at love. So, first of all – is there even a shred of truth to that story as far as you know? And then, how far are the women from being able to compete with the men? Is the gap bigger now than in the wooden racket days? What happens when they practice together?
You’re off with the story, but not too far off. The player in question was Germany’s Karsten Braasch (that’s him on the right), a man who smoked 15 cigarettes a day and owned a serve that involved him running toward the baseline and leaping as he hit the ball. He took a set off Pete Sampras at Wimbledon once.
About 10 years ago, as the Williams sisters were starting their rise up the rankings, there was some talk about how the women were gaining on the men in strength and size, and perhaps they could finally challenge them. The Williamses had watched a player ranked around No. 200 in the world and thought they could beat him. They went to the men’s tour offices at a tournament and asked to play with a man ranked around No. 200. Braasch was there at the time, and he was ranked No. 203. He had had a couple beers that morning before playing a round of golf, but he said sure, he’d play them. He went out and beat Serena 6-1 and then Venus 6-2. (It should be noted that four years earlier Braasch had been ranked as high as No. 38 in the world, so he was no slouch.)
The consensus is that the top women in the world would be competitive with men who are second-tier college players. There’s the power difference, but the most crucial element seems to be speed. Maria Sharapova practices with an ex-pro named Michael Joyce, a guy who never cracked the Top 50 as far as I know, and there’s no comparison in how they move around the court. I would say the gap is bigger now than it was in the wood racquet days,in the early 70s, the men and women actually played very similar all-court, slice-backhand-based games (again, not at the same speed). The difference in power was not as great, and the men had not developed the huge topspin they use now (the women, for the most part, have not become heavy topspin hitters even with bigger racquets).
Martina Navratilova, at the height of her success in the early 80s, when she was dominating the women, also entertained the notion of competing against men. For some reason, Vitas Geruilaitis was offended by this idea and challenged her to play the No. 100 man in the world. He even named the guy who was ranked No. 100 that week on TV. I don’t think the guy wanted anything to do with it, and the challenge died.
Steve Tignor is the executive editor of Tennis magazine. For more of his writing, check out his weekly column, The Wrap, on the Tennis website.