In the first part of our series analysing the similarities and differences between men’s and women’s tennis, we speak to respected coach Simon Rea and delve into some revealing game data.
The appointment of former Spanish female pro Gala Leon Garcia to the Spanish Davis Cup captaincy in September 2014 certainly ruffled a few feathers.
“It is preferable that (the captain) is someone with a background in the world of men’s tennis,” said a disgruntled Toni Nadal on Onda Cero radio. “I have nothing against her, I don’t know what her capabilities are, and I hope she does her job well, but in theory she is a person that doesn’t know men’s tennis, because men’s tennis isn’t the same as women’s tennis.
“The truth is that the men’s game isn’t the same as the women’s game on the tactical level, not that one is better than the other.”
We’re going to side-step the fact Toni Nadal has no professional-level playing or coaching experience whatsoever outside of his relationship with nephew Rafael. Instead, we’re looking at his broad statement – that the men’s and women’s games are fundamentally different.
This is a sentiment that seems to have existed in professional tennis for aeons. Yet it’s a slightly curious one. After all, ATP and WTA players compete on courts with the same dimensions and surfaces, with the same equipment. They all serve, play forehands and backhands, and hit volleys and overheads. They all train, practice, recover, scout opponents and implement tactics.
People often point to the fact the men play a “heavier” game than the women. And while typically true, you’d argue Svetlana Kuznetsova and Sam Stosur play with more shape and spin than Juan Martin del Potro and Tomas Berdych. The conventional wisdom is that the serve is a much bigger factor in the men’s game. But that doesn’t hold for Serena and Venus Williams, whose games are built around serves which clock higher speeds than many men. Nor Andre Agassi, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, male champions more notable for their returning prowess than their serving.
Simon Rea is one elite-level coach who has worked in both the male and female tennis spheres. The New Zealander coached world No.13 Nick Kyrgios for 18 months before linking up with former US Open champion Stosur in mid 2014.
We asked Rea whether major differences existed between the two games, and what those were. And while he noted some divergence in playing styles, patterns and tactics, he felt it unnecessary to radically overhaul his approach to specifically suit male or female players.
“The first thing I try to do in any coaching relationship is try to earn the respect of the player I’m working with. And some of that’s universal in terms of how I try to go about doing that. So whether that’s with Nick or Sam, there’s definitely some crossover there,” Rea said.
“Both men’s and women’s tennis players are capable of being very aggressive, (but) they’re aggressive in different ways, I guess. I’m generalising here; there are exceptions to every rule.
“The physicality of both sports is really impressive, they’re really impressive athletes across the board. I guess the physicality of the men is at a point where some of the defence that’s getting played and the number of extended points, sets and matches is really quite remarkable. I still feel there’s an absolute premium on the women’s game of being the aggressor and trying to look at ways and means to expose your opponent’s physicality.
“Obviously the serve in men’s tennis is an enormous weapon. Sam’s lucky in that she’s got a huge weapon on serve herself. But in generalising here, the second serve in women’s tennis presents a significant opportunity to be aggressive from a returning perspective, to get on top of the point.
“I’d say the return of serve is important in both (sports), but a lot of the female players return at an incredibly high level because that’s become something that’s so necessary.”
Rea noted a general difference in stroke production, explaining that the shape of men’s shots and the revolutions they impart on the ball typically contrast with the flat power of the women, who “can really give it a whack”.
Just how hard they can “whack” it has become a recent topic of interest. Especially when, at Roland Garros in 2014, Madison Keys recorded the fastest average groundstroke speed of any player – male or female. At 127km/h, she eclipsed Novak Djokovic and Andrey Golubev, ranked equal second on 124km/h. Rafael Nadal, ranked fifth, averaged 119km/h.
This finding was backed up by Game Insight Group (GIG) data focusing on the Australian Open between 2012 and 2016. Reporting for ESPN, Greg Garber wrote that Keys’ backhand and forehand speeds ranked seventh- and eighth-fastest among all players – faster than most men.
“Everyone looks at the Keys numbers and in some respects is taken aback,” said GIG director Dr Machar Reid. “It’s amazing how close she approximates what men do, the ball flight and how close to net it is. Madison’s balls skid through the court more than most.”
Like the men, Keys is yet another female player whose game is built around a powerful serve – for the past four years she’s finished inside the top 10 for the most number of aces served in a single season. Notably, she’s been coached by both men (Thomas Hogstedt, Jesse Levine) and women (Lindsay Davenport, Lisa Raymond).
Whether Toni Nadal acknowledges it or not, a great deal of crossover exists between the two games.
Trends or stereotypes in men’s and women’s tennis can be bucked. Coaching is coaching – regardless of whether it’s a male or female protégé. Players can work with coaches of either gender. Aggression and offense are paramount on both the ATP and WTA tours.
The appointment of Leon Garcia was perhaps the first step towards truly acknowledging that.
Her successor? Former Wimbledon champion and women’s world No.2 Conchita Martinez.
Stay tuned for part two of our analysis, where we hear more from the players themselves about their experiences of playing with, training alongside and competing against the opposite gender.
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