Girl power: Evolution of the women’s game


Originally published on: 15/12/11 10:09

Women’s tennis once resembled a chess-like battle of tactical wit, as players entertained the masses with displays of artistry, finesse and flair. Players would slice and dice, chip and charge, serve and volley, in an effort to utilise every shot in the book to outmanoeuvre an opponent.

The improvements in racket technology and training methods have transformed the game of tennis since the days of consummate players like Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. Those stars laid the foundations for the game we love today but over the years tennis has been remodelled as a sport of power, athleticism, speed and endurance.

While some tennis romanticists deem the new era as one-dimensional, a monotonous battle of aggressive baseliners whose only time spent at the net is to shake hands, others feel the current crop comprise supremely gifted athletes, who display a discipline unrivalled in other generations. The women on today’s WTA tour produce groundstrokes that rebound from their rackets like rockets and possess serves that should probably come with permits they are so lethal.

One of the main reasons for this increase in power is the shift to graphite rackets from the wooden frames that were used in the past. But technology hasn’t been the only factor behind the dramatic change in women’s tennis. Just as Bjorn Borg revolutionised the sport with topspin, there were also female players who reshaped the game with their own unique styles.

Former British pro Sue Mappin, who reached career-high world rankings of No.28 in singles and No.6 in doubles, attributes the re-styling of tennis to the advent of the two-handed backhand and, in particular, the style of American former world No.1 Evert.

“I think the reason she was so influential was because she was so good,” Mappin says. “There were other players with two-handed backhands, not that many, but she was successful and as soon as someone is successful with a certain way of playing you can guarantee coaches are going to be watching and saying, ‘Right, all my players will have two-handed backhands because she has done so well’. When Chris came on the scene she also hit the ball very early and I suppose that was the start of the penetrating groundstrokes.”

Evert’s influence on today’s game is difficult to underestimate, with a staggering 92 per cent of women favouring a double-handed backhand on the tour this year. The 18-time Grand Slam champion paved the way for a generation of hard-hitting baseliners who were additionally facilitated by the introduction of carbon fibre rackets, nylon strings and bigger racket heads.

Developments in cardiovascular, agility and strength training also impacted the women’s game, contributing to the finely-chiselled athletes that grace the court today. If Evert is to be credited with revolutionising the way tennis is played, then Navratilova and Steffi Graf have to be recognised as the pioneers for off-the-court conditioning that is now a vital component of professional sport.

Barry Newcombe, a journalist who has covered the last 46 Wimbledon Championships, has witnessed first hand the transformation of tennis players into the robust athletes of today.

“They all look a lot sharper to me now,” Newcombe says about modern players. “Not just those who are going to be in the second week of a Grand Slam, but those who are in the first week. Graf was a great athlete. She trained with the German track and field team at the 1984 Olympics and they reckon she was a 400-metre runner straight away and had the qualities to compete at Olympic level, which showed where her fitness level was.”

But as players became more aggressive and stronger, and their equipment became more powerful, there was an inevitable period of inconsistency in the women’s game. Mappin explains that for a while there was almost an inverse relationship between power and variety, because as players started to hit the ball harder, the diversity in their play gradually began to fade.

“There was a period when I used to watch the women hitting the cover off the ball but there was no strategy, just hitting balls as hard as possible,” she says. “There was an A plan, but there was no B plan and there certainly wasn’t a C plan. So if your hard hitting didn’t work on that particular day you weren’t successful, and you didn’t have an alternative. But now I think it is beginning to change. We are beginning to see players looking to do more.”

Mappin’s view that variety is beginning to creep back into women’s tennis is echoed by Patrick Mouratoglou, a Frenchman who has coached top 20 players such as Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Aravane Rezai and Marcos Baghdatis.

“I don’t think that the players have become one-dimensional,” Mouratoglou argues. “Schiavone, Williams, Stosur, Azarenka, Wozniacki, Martinez-Sanchez, Vinci. Would you say that they all play the same? The women’s game has improved a lot in 30 years. It has grown in terms of interest, in terms of prizemoney, and many more young girls have had the desire to develop and become professional tennis players. There is much more competition than before.”

Mourataglou also believes that one of the major differences in the women’s game has come on the serve and return. The Williams sisters knocked the tennis world off its axis when they arrived on the scene in the late 90s. They were the poster girls for the power era with missile-like serves and a return of serve position that saw them stand three feet inside the baseline.

Everything about them – their height, physique, power and ability – was daunting for their opponents from the get-go. While the serve was once used as a means of starting the point, Venus and Serena were ending points with it and competitors started to take note. In 1989 only two women hit serves that were measured at over 100 mph, but 15 years later that number had risen to 151 players. Venus currently holds the record for the fastest serve of all time, clocked at 129mph, while Serena isn’t too far off with a 128mph bazooka of her own.

Women’s tennis was once characterised by teen queens. Players who burst onto the scene before their sweet 16s with little fear of the established pros that stood on the opposite side of the net. But with only two teenagers currently inside the world’s top 100 –Bojana Jovanovski and Christina McHale – the average age of professional players is increasing.

The ITF has put in place rules that limit the amount of professional tournaments that girls under 18 can play, but you also have to question if the excessive power in today’s game contributed to the decline in teenagers at the top.

“If you’re only 17, 18, 19 you are still developing,” says Mappin. “If you look at Laura Robson, she has a great game to build on. The fact that she is left-handed is a huge plus, but she is vulnerable because she hasn’t got the strength yet because she is still growing.”

So where does the game develop from here? Pint-sized champions such as Martina Hingis and Justine Henin broke the mould over the last few decades with a variety to their game that troubled the most powerful players. Their success gave belief that power can be combatted and the general consensus now is that the women, like the men, are starting to find ways to manage not only their opponent’s power, but their own too. Aggressive hitters on the tour today, including Serena, have seen the need to add more variety and they have duly obliged.

“I think that power can be beaten, but Serena is simply the best player in the world at the moment,” said Mourataglou. “Young players are rising but they need one or two more years to develop.”

We have seen skillful champions and we have seen powerful champions. If this is the generation that combines the two, then the women’s game has a very bright future indeed.

‘Girl power’ featured in the November 2011 issue of tennishead magazine. To subscribe, click here.


Tim Farthing, Tennishead Editorial Director & Owner, has been a huge tennis fan his whole life. He's a tennis journalist and entrepreneur as well as playing tennis to a national standard. He also helps manage his local club and volunteers for his local tennis organisation. He's a specialist in content about the administration of professional tennis and tennis coaching for all levels.