Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Serena doesn’t love tennis: What’s the big deal?

Serena in Brisbane
Now that tennis season is underway in Brisbane, Australia, startling news has emerged from ‘Down Under.’ According to reports, Serena Williams has acknowledged that she “is not passionate about the game she has dominated for so long” (“Serena Williams,” 2012, para. 1). After saying that she doesn’t love tennis today, she admits in the next sentence that she “can’t live without it” and doesn’t “want to go anywhere any time soon” (para. 2). Perhaps that is a relief to the WTA tour administrators who know how much the Women’s Tour relies upon the Williams sisters to headline the sport. There is an obvious drop-off in interest and television ratings when either Venus or Serena misses a tournament. I have even heard tennis analyst Mary Carillo say that Serena Williams is the biggest draw in the game—in men’s and/or women’s tennis! While some would take issue with that assessment, Serena is arguably the most dominant woman player of the past decade.So how do we make sense of this "bombshell" from "down under?"

Agassi acknowledged hating tennis.

When I first heard the reports, it reminded me of Andre Agassi's admission in his autobiography Open that he hated the game he played for so many years. Perhaps the impact of Agassi's admission was diffused by 'other sins' he confessed including that he had taken crystal meth during a particularly difficult time in his life. Even more surprising to students in one of my classes was the admission that he wore a hair weave. Apparently, hating tennis was not the worst sin to confess. In an earlier blog entry, I suggested that it may be difficult for sports' purists to accept that professional athletes might not  love the sport that most would give anything to play for a living. So when we see those who have the opportunity to do so, making millions of dollars on top of that, it is difficult to fathom how they would not love it (as we think we would). I am guessing that the majority of Sport Management students would probably say that their "dream job" is to play their sport professionally.

Many students who choose Sport Management as a major believe that loving sports is a sufficient prerequisite for being hired in the field. As a result, professors in Sport Management repeatedly emphasize that loving sports is not enough. There are so many other areas in which students need to be proficient so as to excel in a Sport Management position (e.g., understanding management principles, accounting, economics, event planning, facilities, legal aspects of sport, psychological and/or sociocultural aspects of the workplace, to name only a few). So perhaps it should come as no surprise that professional athletes also need to be proficient at so many other things besides playing their sport. Not to mention that there are things professional athletes have to do that have nothing to do directly with their sport--I can think of nothing more draining than to have to travel on a regular basis to do my job. Yet professional athletes (tennis players, in particular) must do it globally on a year-round basis.

There is another aspect of Serena's bombshell that intrigues me even more, and that relates to comments by tennis analyst Brad Gilbert that were aired on ESPN. When asked about his response to Serena's statement that she didn't love tennis, Gilbert seemed to downplay the negative impressions so many others had expressed, pointing out that she appeared to be relaxed and was having fun with the press. He noted that she has been saying many of these things for the past 4 or 5 years. The next part of his explanation was especially instructive as I  prepare to teach a class in "Sport & Gender" for the coming semester. Gilbert said that "Serena's this great powerful athlete. But she wants everybody to know deep down she's kind of a woman... she's a girlie-girl. And she likes to get her nails done and she loves fashion. And she's still a great athlete--all in the same sentence." My takeaway from this: there is still dissonance between being an athlete and being a woman. If you are a woman athlete, it is still "contested terrain" (to quote Mike Messner, 1988). Did anyone think Andre Agassi would have been more of a man if he had loved tennis?