Raising a toast to the different ways men and women play sports
John McEnroe's remarks about Serena Williams raise an important question: why should we compare male and female sportspersons?
Not even if you are a keen tennis fan do I expect that the name Karsten Braasch will ring a bell. This German player retired from the pro circuit years ago without having made much of a mark: a few doubles titles and not one singles title. At his peak, he was ranked 36th in the world. Still, with his sliced backhand and deceptively topspun serve, he could sometimes be a handful. At Wimbledon in 1995, for example, he took a set off Pete Sampras at the peak of his grass-court powers.
But Braasch is best known for two other things. One, that serve came off easily as the strangest service motion in tennis. Find him on YouTube and take a look, for it’s my conviction that nobody should go to their grave without having seen Braasch serve.
Two, while ranked 203 in 1998, he played a set each against a pair of then up-and-coming sisters named Williams.
If you are indeed a keen tennis fan, you know that has some resonance today. On 25 June, John McEnroe remarked that if Serena Williams played the men’s circuit, she would rank about 700. That remark set off a storm. Serena is the best woman tennis player on the planet right now, and possibly ever, goes the critique of McEnroe (even he agrees with that). So how is it possible that there are 699 men on the planet who would beat her?
Well, that’s exactly why Braasch comes to mind. Up-and-coming the Williams sisters indeed were in 1998. At the Australian Open that year, watching some of the men at practice, they were “convinced that they could beat a man ranked around 200", according to Braasch’s own account of the events, “and wanted to set up a game". Braasch was ranked 203 at the time, so an official asked if he would take on the sisters. He agreed immediately: “It seemed like a fun thing to do."
On the appointed day, Braasch prepared for the action with “a leisurely round of golf in the morning, followed by a couple of shandies". This was hardly out of character: Braasch’s training regime, a journalist once wrote, “centred around a pack of cigarettes and more than a couple bottles of ice-cold lager". He played Serena first and won 6-1. He played Venus next and though she actually broke his serve once, he won 6-2.
It was all very friendly and a whole lot of fun, both for the players and for the few who turned up on Court 12 to watch. But one account said the sisters “played as intensely as they could, while Braasch performed with gentlemanly restraint". Still, Serena later reflected: “It was extremely hard…. I hit shots that would have been winners (against the women) and he got to them easily." Braasch supplemented that with these lines:
“Both sisters are great tennis players and hit the ball extremely well. However, if you’ve been playing on the men’s tour, there are certain shots you can play that are going to put them in difficulty. … I was hitting the ball with a degree of spin they don’t face week-in, week-out. (Also) they were putting shots into the corners that on the women’s tour would be winners but I was able to return them."
The experience got the sisters thinking, and they revised their estimate of how they might fare against male pros. They could beat the No.350-ranked male player, they told the press. Braasch heard about this from a journalist. He replied that he was about to lose a lot of ranking points—having lost early at that year’s Australian Open—and would sink to about No.350 in the world over the next week. So “if Venus and Serena waited just one week," he says he told the journalist, “they could challenge me all over again!"
To go with the beer and the smokes, that man Braasch had a sense of humour too.
Now admittedly, in 1998 the Williams sisters were mere teenagers, still some distance removed from the multiple championships they would rack up in the next couple of decades. While they were already competing well with the best players, they didn’t have the experience they have now, that comes with winning regularly. They probably didn’t have the mental strength that Serena, especially, is famed for and is able to count on. So if they played the 203-ranked man today—a certain Gleb Sakharov, as I write this—I doubt the scores would be 6-1 and 6-2.
But I am certain they would still lose.
That, for the reasons Braasch spoke of. Male pros simply have that much more power in their bodies and spin on their shots than the women; they are quicker on court and can reach and return many more shots than women can. Where the sisters would score over the lower-ranked men is mentally, and in those intangibles that winning big titles adds to your game. Can they make up for the deficit in power and quickness? Here’s Braasch again: “Against anyone in the top 500, no chance." But what about No.700? Or would they beat 21-year-old Rishabh Agarwal of India, No.707 as I write this?
I honestly don’t think so, though I’m less sure than I am about Gleb Sakharov. Yet this brief recounting of Braasch’s brush with fame is the context in which to consider McEnroe’s remark. For what he said about ranking Serena at 700 is by no means a belittling of Serena’s accomplishments or her remarkable gift for tennis. It is instead an acknowledgement that the men’s and women’s games are different animals, best seen that way, and best appreciated for what they are.
Take pro basketball, for example. The men play a faster and more physical game. The women use passing, finesse and strategy much more than the men do. Both can be beautiful to watch—me, I actually prefer the women’s game. But it makes little sense to ask how the best woman in basketball would fare in the men’s game.
Or take athletics. The 100m world record for men is Usain Bolt’s 9.58 seconds; for women, it’s Florence Griffith-Joyner’s 10.49 seconds. There are probably thousands of male runners today who would beat FloJo’s mark—and in fact, the men’s record went below 10.49 seconds all the way back in 1921. Yet does that mean FloJo was not a remarkable athlete? That women’s athletics is not thrilling to watch?
I mean, it’s slightly foolish to make the equation between men’s and women’s performances in most other games and sports. But tennis? Only in tennis are questions asked about how women would stack up against men. Then there’s uproar over what is really a perfectly reasonable answer from McEnroe: Serena is easily one of the greatest athletes in history, but “if she had to just play the men’s circuit, that would be an entirely different story".
Or there’s the equally reasonable answer we recently heard of, to a different but equally foolish question about gender in sports. “Who is your favourite male cricketer?" a journalist asked the captain of the Indian women’s cricket team, Mithali Raj. She shot back: “Do you ask the same question to a male cricketer? Do you ask them who their favourite female cricketer is?"
The point? Men and women play sports—whichever it is—in utterly different ways. They are athletic and graceful, powerful and awe-inspiring, in their own utterly different ways. We armchair aficionados should leave it there and simply enjoy the spectacle. Even raise a toast to it all. In that, I think Karsten Braasch might join us.