These are basically quotes from coverage of the women’s Wimbledon final match between Marion Bartoli and Sabine Lisicki. I have never seen the word quirky used so frequently and so transparently as code for weird.

Marion-Bartoli-v-Flipkens_2967859For example, USA Today’s headline, “Quirky Wimbledon Deserves Quirky Winner in Marion Bartoli.” This article proclaims that “quirky is too easy a word to describe” Bartoli, but:

sometimes the easy word is the best word. Bartoli looks like Luis Tiant when she serves, bounces around on her feet like Muhammad Ali before a title fight and takes practice cuts like she’s on-deck at the Home Run Derby. She’s had public fallouts with her father/coach, claims to have an IQ higher than Einstein’s and gives interviews that are actually insightful, a rarity in the modern tennis game.

Other writers (like in The Guardian) use eccentric and/or unorthodox. “She’s a woman unlike any other,” Chris Fowler said uncomfortably on ESPN after her win today. Others call her Marion the Contrarian or openly mock her oddness, like Sports Illustrated.

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The quirkiness, according to received wisdom, is thoroughgoing. Her doctor-father taught himself to play tennis by reading every book he could find; he taught Marion. Her training includes boxing, far afield from typical tennis stars’. She uses two hands for both forehand and backhand. She moves without grace; when she beat Kirsten Flipkens in the semifinal, she dropped into the awkward position you see above. Even the generous Chris Evert frequently describes her as “not a natural athlete.”

I admit, I don’t quite know how she serves (she has an excellent serve) — her serving arm stretches straight back from her body in a way that exaggerates her physical awkwardness. The commentators seem to see her as an embarrassing quirk of the women’s game.

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Unlike her opponent Sabine Lisicki, the smiling, large-eyed, blonde girl (who, ahem, cried during the match when things went badly), Bartoli doesn’t girl it up on the court. Instead she pumps her fist after every won point, never cracking a smile or dropping the slightly dour look to prettify herself for tennis audiences looking for smiling blonde girls. There’s no makeup, unlike the heavily applied eyes of Serena Williams and Agnieszka Radwanska.

Marion Bartoli

Bartoli’s body also sets her apart from virtually all the top players aside from Serena Williams. Shorter than many (she’s 5’7″), while also bigger/stockier, she doesn’t cover up the roll of belly fat around the middle.

The news that she tested at genius level as a child has not missed the commentators. “She’s very smart,” they often say with considerable skepticism. Alternately, they note that her IQ has been claimed but never proven.

One keeps waiting for someone to point out that she hasn’t bothered to shave very carefully.

marion-bartoli2_2608816bYou know what? Thank heavens we have major athletes like Bartoli who show that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model for success. Why aren’t we having a conversation about how great it is that a normal-looking woman — at age 28 — who “isn’t a natural athlete” has won Wimbledon? Isn’t this the best possible inspiration for all of us?

I say it again: our culture has such issues with female athletes who sit outside the “norm” — a norm that seems to be defined by beach volleyball players. Get over it, folks.

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

I don’t remember exactly when I started watching Chrissie Evert closely, but I’m guessing it was about 1977 or 1978, just about the time that I started to take tennis a little more seriously. It was also about the time that mean girls in my class started to emerge to taunt the rest of us about our clothes, musical tastes, whatever. They lurked, menacingly, in hallways. Chris Evert was my solution.

Evert seemed unmatched at the top during those years, even though women’s tennis was only a shadow of what it would become later. Entire games went by during which the two players simply lobbed the ball, back and forth, endlessly. It was boring, honestly.

Not that it mattered to me: watching Evert play was like watching someone figure out a problem. I was too young to understand her strategy, or what made her win. What I paid attention to was her laser focus, the set of her jaw, the unsentimentality of her play. She never cried or whined or threw her racquet — like a lot of the male players of the day. Neither was she very girly, despite the blonde hair and short skirts. She drove every single one of her emotions into winning games and sets and matches. She never seemed to get distracted by unimportant details. She’d squint her eyes and get down to business.

Watching Evert was therapeutic.

I started playing tennis in 12-and-under tournaments and realized quickly that tennis is full of mean girls, and that tennis is an emotional game. If you were picking up your balls, your opponent might throw one at you so it’d whiz by your face. “Sorry,” she’d say disingenuously. Or she’d interrupt play and waste some time rifling through her bag looking for some chapstick while she caught her breath. Or she might not shake hands after the match, or she’d cry. Plus, it’s really annoying to have someone lob balls at you for an entire game — enough that you get frustrated and make mistakes.

Clearly, Evert’s steeliness was hard-won.

Then, of course, Martina Navratilova came along. She was strong — ridiculously strong — and tall and left-handed, and she played a man’s game, serve-and-volley rather than that feminine baseline game. She was emotional. She was also Czech, which seemed dangerous and scary to my 12-year-old self. She started winning tournaments, and she didn’t stop. (Martina won Wimbledon titles nine times. Nine! as well as nine other Grand Slam titles — tying Chris’s own record.)

I hated her on Chrissie’s behalf. When she started losing matches to Martina, she seemed flummoxed. How do you solve a problem like Martina? It was as if the rules had changed.

Which is exactly what had happened. Evert has spoken many times in recent years about how Martina brought the entire women’s game to a new level because they all realized they had to start getting stronger and smarter. I didn’t know that then, though. I also didn’t know that she and Martina were great friends off the court. I felt myself caught up in Chrissie’s confusion.

Evert got stronger and smarter. She stopped being “Chrissie,” even for me, and was just Chris. The whole women’s game changed, and younger players of all kinds swarmed onto the court. Even my school’s tennis coach had us do weight training.

But what I really learned from Evert was to squint your eyes at the problem — stop getting all weepy-eyed and emotional, and figure it out. It was a subconscious realization for a while. My first Evert-inspired shift came during those tennis tournaments: I decided I would never be bitchy or bratty toward my opponents; in fact, I’d treat them exactly the way I wanted to be treated. I reasoned that whether I won or lost, I didn’t want to dirty myself with the bullshit.

I’m not sure at what point during the horrors of junior high and high school that I consciously realized what I’d learned from watching Evert. At some point I learned that being smart could make up for weaknesses in your game. It was a huge revelation. It sounds facile now, but I became a much better player when I stopped focusing on my opponent’s attempts to annoy me, and more on what I could do to move her around the court till she got tired.

I squinted my eyes and saw around the problem.

Not that the mean girls went away. The worst of them became a terrific tennis player late in high school, accentuating her skills with great use of her capacity for bitchiness. But by then I’d learned a kind of mental toughness that allowed me to set aside her worst behavior. It really didn’t matter that much anymore.

I’ve been thinking lately about how much I learned as a kid by over-identifying with female athletic heroes. I’ve wondered whether tennis taught particular lessons because it’s so personal and emotional and intellectual — as opposed to team sports, which dilute the focus on individuals — or whether young girls in Waco, Texas watch the Baylor women’s basketball team, which includes phenomenon Brittney Griner (whose complex gender performance seems to flummox so many commentators), and learn lessons of their own.

There didn’t seem to be a lot of gender options for girls back in 1977: Farrah Fawcett was probably at the top of a very short list. So you’ll have to take my word for it that Chrissie Evert nevertheless taught me how to be smart, how not to be just a girl, and how to get my mind right for dealing with mean girls. Watching her address the problem of Martina Navratilova helped me figure out problems of my own. Considering the Charlie’s Angels of contemporary television, Evert was mind-blowingly interesting and complex.

What does it mean for girls now to have female athletes as wide-ranging as the fiercely muscled tennis genius Serena Williams, the highly masculine-looking/ gender-bending Griner, the openly gay soccer player Abby Wambach? I wish I were 11 years old and could figure it out on my own — and go on to change the world.