His Backhand Needs Work

No, McEnroe Can't Beat Venus or Serena. Even If He Could, So What?

Like it or not, spectator sports are entertainment, and by extension, an aesthetic pursuit. (And if anyone should understand that, it should be McEnroe, who was a consummate artist on the court and a gallery owner off it.) And therein lies the raison d'être of women's sports. The reason for the skyrocketing popularity of women's college basketball and the WNBA is that the women play a, pardon the expression, prettier game, one in which passing is more important than leaping. One might argue, in fact, that in terms of size, speed, and leaping ability, today's elite female players are closer to what James Naismith envisioned when he first hung up those peach baskets.

And the grace gap dominates the judging sports, like gymnastics and figure skating, in which women are far more popular than men. Alexi Yagudin may be able to outleap Sarah Hughes, but no one cares.

The distinction is clearest in McEnroe's own game. You don't have to be a marketing genius to see why women's pro tennis has become a crossover hit, while the men's game continues to search for identity. The men may hit the ball harder, but the women hit the ball better. They play longer, more creative points, changing speed and pace, often choosing inventive angles over sheer power.

Beyond that, the backstory is better. The rivalry between the sisters and Martina Hingis is, despite its unfortunate racial overtones, a classic. Jennifer Capriati is TV-movie material all by herself. And the Williamses' sister-vs.-sister rivalry has no parallel on the men's side. So it's hardly any wonder that last year's Venus-vs.-Serena women's final in the U.S. Open was the first tennis match broadcast in network prime time in 25 years. The first since King vs. Riggs, to be precise.

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