Dear International Tennis Federation/ Women’s Tennis Association,

I am writing to thank you sooooo much for your soon-to-be-implemented grunt-o-meter, to be utilized only in women’s tennis matches to make sure those ladies stop screaming so loudly during their matches! (And thank you soooo much for the fact that this is not a joke! I have been reassured by some guy who writes for Business Insider that this is not sexist for being a rule that won’t apply to men!)

Ever since the days of Monica Seles (whose pro career took off in 1989) I’ve been complaining that those screeches are no fun for me to listen to as I sit on my sofa and watch! Thank you so much for finally bowing to negative fan and media reaction by slowly implementing this new plan!

Their grunts have made it particularly disturbing for me to watch all-star blonde hotties like Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka — the current world #1 and #2. I mean, how can I enjoy their beauteousness if they let loose animalistic screams after every shot? And who, I ask, is tennis for if not for me and my ideas about how ladies are supposed to behave?

Now, I’m not a petty person. After much consideration I have also developed another argument besides “it’s annoying” for eliminating lady-screeching: their grunting must be distracting to their opponents, perhaps even amounting to a form of gamesmanship. Or at least that’s what I heard a commentator say one time.

To express my gratitude, I’d like to recommend that you look into several other matters that are exactly equivalent to the screaming issue — equivalent, that is, in that they bother me. Remember: the customer is always right!

1. Andy Murray’s facial hair. Now, I don’t like to be mean-spirited, but I think we can all agree that Murray could be at least a slightly more appealing-looking figure if he’d engage in a little more personal care. Staring at the hair growing all over his neck is surely distracting to other players as well, perhaps amounting to a form of gamesmanship. But what do I care about how other players feel? It’s nasty to me personally. (Also, the teeth. Don’t they have orthodontists in Scotland?)

2. Rafael Nadal’s ritualistic routine before each point. One writer reckons that this routine has eleven steps (although sometimes a single step has several parts to it, like #5: “Wipe your nose, then your forehead, then tuck your hair behind your left ear, then your right. In that order”). Eleven steps?! some of which sound like this?! Criminey!

Now, I don’t really care whether Nadal’s superstitious — what I care about is my own precious time! His matches take forever! I mean, honestly, that 2012 Australian Open men’s final took five hours! I have other things to do!

3. Players who curse or talk to themselves in their native languages. Now, as hard as it is for many Americans to believe that other people grow up speaking something other than English, I speak for all of us when I say that I want to know exactly what it is that those Belorussian or Chinese players are saying to themselves when they finish a point and spew out a line of something.

Please see what you can do to institute an all-English language rule so we Americans don’t need to feel excluded when a player has a lot to say to him/ herself during a match. It’s rude, and rudeness should not be permitted in a genteel sport like tennis!

4. And speaking of people who slow down the game, let’s talk about players who slow down the pace of play even when they’re not serving. The rules of play require that they move at the speed of the server, but chair umpires appear unwilling to reprimand players who refuse to go along. It’s yet another way that players use to get inside one another’s heads.

5. And speaking of people who try to get inside their opponent’s heads, what about those often off-camera incidents that indicate the far more serious inter-personal battles that take place on court? The nasty comments that only the other player hears; the body checks when they switch sides; the evil glares; the locker room drama. Why focus on grunting as a form of gamesmanship when the entire sport is full of it? Because … it is a sport, after all!

If you want to stick with the “let’s police female behavior” theme, perhaps you could institute a Nice-O-Meter that players have to pass.

Also, shouldn’t all the female players just smile a lot more? Tell them they’ll do better on the Nice-O-Meter if they smile and look prettier on the court.

Anyway, this is all to say “cheers” to you for inventing the idea for the new grunt-o-meter, and don’t let this be the only way you interfere with players’ concentration and intensity during matches! So what if grunting actually fosters focus during matches, as Katy Waldman argues (very effectively)? I say that the ladies must be reminded of their lady-ness as much as possible! And I’ll be sure to write again when I’ve got more useful recommendations for you!

Hugs and kisses,

Feminéma

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First let me begin with a scene at the US Open last weekend:  Maria Sharapova is battling Caroline Wozniacki, the top-ranked woman at this year’s tournament, and she should be winning.  Sharapova combines her nearly 6’3″ frame with a lupine fierceness and a seeming pleasure in tasting her opponents’ blood.  She hits her shots with such power that she screeches.  It baffles me that for so long she’s capitalized in advertisements on her blonde pinup girl good looks, as I find her terrifying:  on the court, Sharapova is all mean girl.  Especially when she bows her head and prepares to serve, then looks up from underneath her visor to glare at her opponent with an icy look of death.

So why isn’t she beating Wozniacki?  A major theme used to discuss this year’s wide-open women’s draw is nerves.  With that in mind it seems obvious that Sharapova’s beating herself.  She takes way too long to serve — then hits it wild.  For her second serve she pauses even longer, bouncing the ball endlessly, and then proceeds to whack it into the net (she committed 9 double-faults, the equivalent of more than two full games’ loss).  This prompts the commentators to remind us of her miserable performance at last year’s US Open, when she double-faulted 21 times in a match against Melanie Oudin.  When she gets them in to start a rally, she commits an unacceptable number of errors (36).  Her moments of true brilliance drive Wozniacki between sidelines and far back beyond the baseline; but in the end Sharapova loses 6-3, 6-4.  I am uncharacteristically crushed by the collapse of a player whose talents I’ve only grudgingly admired in the past, and I’m disturbed as I watch her struggle with her demons. 

I don’t know if the commentators are right that a remarkable number of female players suffer from these paralyzing nerves (unsurprisingly, male players’ problems have different gendered connotations:  men lose concentration, or perhaps they tighten up), but I’m interested in how women’s self-doubts, in combination with institutional sexism, can conflict with their ambitions.  In fact, I’m not just interested in these subjects, I’m affected by them.  It was prompted when Hattie responded to a post of mine in which I lamented the lack of recognition for a great film by a female director.  She complimented the post and said something like, “You could use some recognition too.”  How did I respond?  I deflected, as I always do when I receive compliments.  Why can’t I take a fucking compliment?

I see Sharapova as a metaphor for this issue because she’s at once intensely competitive, highly talented, and so burdened by self-doubt as to sabotage her own success.  In the past she’s always been willing to do what it takes to win — even be a bitch on the court to get under her opponents’ skin — but now there’s something else going on.  She can’t “just get over it.”  It’s only made worse by the fact that she knows she could — should — beat Wozniacki.  When she struggles, agonizingly, trying to get a serve in, I see some of my own struggles to write effectively and persuasively as an academic, to thrive in a world that benefits scholars who are both prolific and self-promoting.  Watching Sharapova fight herself makes me remember how I painstakingly eked out the final revisions on my book, and how terrible I am at self-promotion.   

So many women strivers have that extra opponent in the room with them.  Even if they’re perfectly comfortable with being ambitious, it’s the execution that causes such emotional gymnastics.  In my case, getting my book done was excruciating, and there’s still a chapter I can’t look at.  All along the way I worried about a thousand other things — being a good enough teacher so I wouldn’t leave class feeling ashamed; being a good colleague and mentor; getting back to see my parents often enough that I wouldn’t feel like a terrible daughter.  (And then there’s the other crap:  Does this bra make my back fat bulge out?  Why do I insist on wearing shoes of torture even when I have blisters everywhere?  Why can’t my partner ever make dinner without getting food detritus on everything within a 12-foot radius?)  In other words, I spent a lot of time worrying about how not to fail at juggling a number of balls, rather than compartmentalizing and playing like, say, Rafael Nadal, whose mind is only on one thing.  I watch him play and I see so clearly the difference between playing to win and playing not to lose.

But it’s more than just inner demons, isn’t it?  It’s also the external ones, like the students who pronounce their female professors to be bitches — which, as far as I can tell, means a woman who has power and uses it without apology.  It can affect one’s personal relationships:  one friend had her (male) partner accuse her of being “careerist” as a factor during their breakup.  Then there are the elite white conservative men who oversee promotions and selectively dole out raises.  In my department, the male professors gossip openly about young faculty — which of the younger men are not just brilliant but good guys, which of the younger women are in trouble for tenure because they’re not yet done with their books.  (Kudos to Servetus for terming them her Dementors, à la Harry Potter, sucking out all hope and life from us.)  But you see, not being a bitch almost inevitably eliminates the possibility of their calling you brilliant, because they don’t possess a stereotype that combines “nice” and “brilliant.”  When my book won a major book prize in my field, for example, one could sense the profound cognitive dissonance among a portion of my colleagues.

I’m not saying that all women face such inner and outer demons (we can all think of an exception) but I know far too many ambitious, talented women who do.  And most critics seem to recognize only one part of this phenomenon when they advance their critiques.  Take, for example, Clay Shirky’s “Rant About Women,” in which he tried to understand the broader phenomenon of why women so seldom engaged in professional self-promotion.  Taking a supportive but tough-love position, he declared that “not enough women have what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks” to put themselves forward to their own advantage.  Not only that, he continued, women will avoid being “self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so.”  Mea culpa.  Shirky is most certainly right when he diagnoses women as generally shying away from such behavior — but what about the fact that many women fear being punished for it, having readily witnessed such punishments of other women?

Then there’s the hullabaloo over Jody Picoult and Jennifer Weiner’s criticism of the Jonathan Franzen love-fest.  When Time magazine put Franzen on its cover with the headline, “GREAT AMERICAN NOVELIST,” and the New York Times Book Review‘s editor-in-chief put his own glowing review of the book on the cover, declaring in the first sentence that the book is “a masterpiece of American fiction,” Picoult and Weiner expressed exasperation.  They’re not complaining that they should have received the same attention; nor are they saying Franzen doesn’t deserve acclaim.  To summarize, in Weiner’s words:

“The only mention my books have ever gotten from the Times have been the occasional single sentence and, if I’m lucky, a dependent clause in a Janet Maslin flyover piece:  ‘Look! Here’s a bunch of books that have nothing in common but spring release dates and lady authors!’  I don’t write literary fiction — I write books that are entertaining, but are also, I hope, well-constructed and thoughtful and funny and have things to say about men and women and families and children and life in America today.  Do I think I should be getting all of the attention that Jonathan ‘Genius’ Franzen gets?  Nope.  Would I like to be taken at least as seriously as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby?  Absolutely.

…I think it’s irrefutable that when it comes to picking favorites – those lucky few writers who get the double reviews AND the fawning magazine profile AND the back-page essay space AND the op-ed, or the Q and A edited and condensed by Deborah Solomon — the Times tends to pick white guys. Usually white guys living in Brooklyn or Manhattan, white guys who either have MFAs or teach at MFA programs … white guys who, I suspect, remind the Times’ powers-that-be of themselves, minus twenty years and plus some hair.”

Picoult and Weiner’s complaints are welcome indeed, especially coming from two eminently successful authors who have no complaints when they get their royalty checks.  But this leads me to two institutions that seek to deal with women’s demons as well as their Dementors.  One is the Op-Ed Project, designed to offer advice and assistance for women who want to publish op-ed pieces.  Only about 10% of such pieces are written by women, making these opinion-setting pages of the newspapers shockingly male-dominated.  This institution recognizes that women writers require not just assistance with placement — convincing (unconsciously?) sexist editors to publish something — but with the demons that stop them from sending out the damn piece to begin with.  Likewise, there’s Mslexia magazine for women writers, which contained in its first issue a beautifully astute assessment of the bizarre position of women writers in the marketplace

These are some of the reasons why I get so frustrated when Slate wonders if Cathleen Schine’s The Three Weissmanns of Wesport is simply “chick lit,” when films about black women get categorized as some kind of sub-genre of “chick flicks,” why female politicians get criticized for their looks and their clothes (remember when Elena Kagan was criticized for sitting with her legs slightly too far apart?).  All of these things exaggerate the demons women are already wrestling with in their professions.  And then we get told that we’re not succeeding because we don’t want it enough — because of our own “choices.”

And finally:  not long after learning I’d won a book prize, I found myself in conversation with a man whose excellent (and prize-winning) book had been one of the contenders.  “You won that prize?!  That was the one I really wanted to win!” he said.  After all this time, I’m still twisted up about that conversation:  still wondering whether he was both complimenting me and expressing confusion about why his book hadn’t topped mine; still convinced that book prizes are just as arbitrary as job offers; still uncertain about how to talk about the prize with people I consider my peers.  (It’s worth noting I had no problem announcing this news to my university’s senior colleagues, Dementors, and administrators, however.)  In short, like Sharapova, I’m still bouncing that ball before a serve, wrestling with these demons, trying too hard not to lose.

Un-fu¢king-believable.  The New York Times writes about Brittney Griner, a 6-foot-8 female basketball star at Baylor University, simply in terms of her attractiveness.  How does the author, Guy Trebay, make this into a news item?  By celebrating how female athletes are expanding our ideas about feminine beauty!  Yay, feminism!  Let’s look at his tally of feminist triumphs via women’s sports:

Feminine beauty ideals have shifted with amazing velocity over the last several decades, in no realm more starkly than sports. Muscular athleticism of a sort that once raised eyebrows is now commonplace. Partly this can be credited to the presence on the sports scene of Amazonian wonders like the Williams sisters, statuesque goddesses like Maria Sharapova, Misty May Treanor and Kerri Walsh, sinewy running machines like Paula Radcliffe or thick-thighed soccer dynamos like Mia Hamm.

Now that you put it in such a sensitive manner, Trebay, I see more clearly how much women have succeeded in making thick thighs and an “Amazonian” physical presence completely mainstream.

Clearly, when presented with the topic of female athletes, our sole question should be:  am I attracted to them?  And thanks to Trebay, we know the answer is yes.  Never mind that Griner has an “attenuated Gumby torso, coltish legs and tomboy features,” he attests; she’s gorgeous!  And he quotes a lot of model casting agents, stylists, and scouts to confirm that fact.

Thus, with our coltish legs and thick thighs, we resolutely take 10 big steps backward.  And I thought it was cool that Griner can dunk.