Sunday, July 12, 2009

Monica Seles Inducted to Tennis Hall of Fame

As a kid, I was an avid tennis fan, playing regularly, taking lessons, and watching any match I could. I reveled in the Grand Slam season, when I could see highlights on Sportscenter. Men's tennis, women's tennis, it didn't matter - I loved watching and playing the sport, and often think how nice it would be to pick it up again. I had lots of players I admired. While I remember the tail end of McEnroe's and Connors' and Evret's careers, the players that most stick in my head growing up were Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Andre Agassi, and, a little later, Pete Sampras (though names like Mats Wilander, Goran Ivanisovic, Boris Becker, and Gaby Sabbatini still remain in my head, even while I struggle to remember the names of Brazilian presidents). While I admired Graf's game, I was a hard-core Seles partisan. It seemed like Seles and Graf were always meeting up, and while I never hated Graf (or blamed her for the man who stabbed Seles and effectively ended the best part of her career and took a decent portion of her potential with it), I never rooted for her either. I loved Seles's aggression on the court and the ferocity with which she played. While people like Evert and Navratilova and Sabbatini were remarkable players, Seles seemed like something new, a powerful new force in women's tennis, and I loved watching her game. Sure, a bit of a crush entered into the picture, too, but it was always first and foremost about how she played; I rejoiced in her 8 grand slams at such a young age. I was devastated when she was stabbed, jubilant when she returned, and saddened when she retired, with the effects of the stabbing becoming increasingly clear as time had passed.

For all of these reasons, it brought me great joy to learn that, yesterday, Monica Seles was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame. It's an obvious choice - youngest Grand Slam champion ever (17), and she won 9 Grand Slams total even with two and a half years lost to the assault of a madman. And I was glad to see ESPN not only interview her, but discuss the challenges she faced, not just in terms of playing and recovering (physically and psychologically) from the stabbing, but the way tennis was increasingly emphasizing women's appearance on the courts as she was entereing the end of her career. This trend is extremely disturbing - one just has to type in names like "Maria Sharapova" or "Ana Ivanovic" or "Jelena Jelinek" in YouTube to see how much objectification is going on here, and how many videos you have to scroll through before you could see actual tennis clips. The issue about gender, appearance, and tennis is well-taken (if you think it's ridiculous, just see Jason Whitlock's idiocy on Serena Williams, which are excessively wrong-headed, contrarian, and blowhard, even by his standards of stupidity, and Renee Martin's excellent rejoinder).

However, I'm more than a little bothered that, by the end of the video, the interview can't help but let some of that objectifiation of women creep back in, particularly when saying she had "shed the weight and kept if off." Seles may have been unhappy with her body and health, but she wasn't fat ever, and while it may be unintentional, that little passage towards the end (including the bit where it shows her for Dancing with the Stars) still emphasizes her physical appearance - it's just emphasizing her weight, rather than the more vague "beauty". To be fair, this is but a small part of the video, and one that accompanies the far more important (and useful) message that not eating all kinds of garbage and learning to reconcile your emotional, physical, and psychological problems with your eating habits is important.

Still, at the end of the day, I'm really happy that she was recognized yesterday for her achievements, and that she's apparently learned to be happy with herself. And in terms of tennis, she'll always be one of the greatest ever, not necessarily in terms of slams won or overall victories, but in terms of sheer athleticism and impact on the sport, which (I feel) is still underrated and cannot be overstated. Without Monica Seles and her fierce, strong game, the games of Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina, and other women would look radically different. And it's all because of Monica Seles. Congratulations.