Backhands And Compliments: WTA & Renee

Anabel Medina Garrigues takes Estoril while Roberta Vinci claims Barcelona

Wow, whatever happened to being young and hungry? Turns out Greta Arn started a trend way back in Auckland this year when she won that event at age 31. Since then, we’ve had Na Li, Daniela Hantuchova (yes, she’s now in this category), Lourdes Dominguez Lino, Jelena Dokic, Alberta Brianti, Vinci and Medina Garrigues all win titles in their late 20s/early 30s.

But! Apart from Li taking Sydney, all the other winners were victorious on the WTA’s delicately named “International” tournament level that carry  a total purse of $220,000. That’s about 30% of the prize money youngster Victoria Azarenka won in Miami or half of what 20 year-old Caroline Wozniacki took home for winning Dubai.

Anyhow, you get the point. I hope.

Speaking of the older generation, the weekend before last, I caught the documentary Renee at the Tribeca Film Festival. In case you missed it, the film covers Renee Richards’ decision (and her intense indecision) to transition from Dr. Richard Raskind to Renee Richards and the subsequent battle to play in the 1977 U.S. Open. The movie also gives us a glimpse into Renee’s life in upstate New York, interviews many of her friends and also deals with Renee’s difficult relationship with her only son, Nick.

I hear many New Yorkers today claim they yearn for the gritty New York of the 1970s. I often feel the same way about covering professional tennis in 2011. Wouldn’t it have been more fun in the era of the early professional movement mixed with women’s rights, gay rights and transgendered rights all wrapped up in fashionable tennis attire and accessible players?

It’s a lot easier to feel nostalgic for something you never experienced, however. And I left the movie wondering if Renee even realized what she was onto.

As pointed out in the movie, Renee was forward thinking but much of that goal could have simply been to be recognized as her old fashioned idea of what a woman was. In other words, she was a 1970s feminist trying to become a 1950s housewife.

As much as the movie profiled her indecision about “transitioning” and her regrets about how she raised her only son, the biggest question revolved around whether or not she should have been allowed to play tennis on the women’s tour. Renee herself has said maybe she shouldn’t have been allowed to play but the general consensus is her age (she was already into her 40s) probably made the pill easier to swallow for the rest of the tour.

In some ways, Renee was probably a real opportunist. As Richard she was a fine player but not exactly professional material. When she became Renee she stood a much better chance as a professional so why not go for it?

The biggest hyped match of all time between King and Bobby Riggs also had a significant age factor. Clearly King wouldn’t have played Riggs if he were 20 years younger – or if Bjorn Borg would have been her opponent. And what if Rafael Nadal were to transition today? Would he be allowed to play?

I don’t think it would have made much difference if Renee had been younger. After all, doesn’t the WTA have a long history (until today at least) of complete dominance?

I’m not calling Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis, Venus Williams or Serena Williams transgendered, but haven’t they all at one point or another pretty much locked up women’s tennis? Maybe if Renee had been younger, she would have dominated for a little while but eventually everyone would have caught up. If Chrissie can win 125 matches on clay in a row, Martina can lose six times in three years, Graf can win the Grand Slam and Venus and Serena can meet in four consecutive slam finals then Renee -at best- would have been just another face in the crowd of champions.

One last word about the transgendered community. I was also surprised how black and white the transgendered subject came across in the movie. While many people still refer to themselves along the gender binary (meaning either man or woman), many trans people are perfectly content referring to themselves as trans people, refusing to adhere to the male/female gender classifications. For a far better explanation that I could ever give, check out this link from Justin Vivian Bond ( Bond’s essay about v’s (you’ll get it if you read it) journey to self-definition away from the gender binary and towards a true sense of self is very well written but it made me wonder if that person would be allowed to play. Maybe tennis is due for another cultural battle.

A quick note about the picture above. It was used in the movie and during the question and answer session with Renee after the airing, Lauren Hutton was in the audience and was clearly moved by the image. In somewhat languorous movements, Hutton said, “Renee…the images of you were so graceful…like an Olympian…like a goddess…graceful…” Or, something like that. Hutton was clearly moved by the image but wasn’t sure how to phrase it into a question. It was a nice moment.

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