3 Tennis Champions Talk On and Off Court Competition

 Getty Images, Matthew Stockman

Getty Images, Matthew Stockman

They’re not waiters but boy, can they serve. 

And thanks to the WTA, The Women’s Tennis Association, they’re getting paid for it. Right now, these women are doing it at the Miami Open. Just last month they were at the BNP Open in Palm Springs. 

The WTA was founded by Billie Jean King, and her group of eight other renegades were revolutionary by 1970s standards. A full two years ahead of the passage of Title IX in the United States, they envisioned a better future for women's tennis.

In September 1970, the birth of women's professional tennis was launched when nine players signed $1 contracts with World Tennis publisher Gladys Heldman to compete in a new women's tour, the Virginia Slims Series. This story was recently saluted in Battle of the Sexes, the Emma Stone movie that followed the rise of the WTA and life of Billie Jean King. The Original 9, as they were called, included Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey, Kerry Melville, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Judy Dalton, Valerie Ziegenfuss and Julie Heldman.

Now, the WTA is the global leader in women’s professional sport with more than 2,500 players representing nearly 100 nations competing for a record $146 million in prize money. It’s been a groundbreaking organization from the beginning.

Australian tennis champ Samantha Stosur is one of the players on tour with WTA. After receiving a racquet for Christmas at age 8, she became a former world No. 1 in doubles, a ranking which she held for 61 weeks. Stosur is also a former world No. 4 in singles. 

"Look outside of your bubble and see where things are right now. Learn about the past. See where we were." 

“Since I was 9 I’ve been competing against other girls, and now women,” Stosur says of the idea that women don’t compete, they empower. “We’re trying to grow everything as a whole, but at the end of the day we have to compete against each other in this sport that’s just the way it is.” Stosur says that it is still entirely possible to compete and root for the progression of all women. “Oh, absolutely. Definitely,” she says. “The WTA is all about that. All the girls on tour feel that. We want to be the best in the world, as a collective, as a whole.” And at the end of the match? “You shake hands and the better person wins on the day. As long as you give your best, what else can you ask for?” she asks. And people are tuning in to watch their best. In 2017, the WTA was watched around the world by a total TV audience of 500 million.

But it's not simply for show. 

Stosur is also on the Player’s Council for the WTA. The Australian, who has been a member of the council since 2013, is one of four players elected as part of the “top 20” category of players. She mentions Venus Williams, another "top 20" player. “Venus was big on equal prize money and equality.” It's what they're always working toward. Stosur says it’s always a matter of “striving for bigger and better things for the tour as a whole.” The 2018 WTA competitive season includes 54 events and four Grand Slams in 30 countries. Stosur says, “Whether it’s about empowering women in our sport, or being the biggest sport in the world for women, or making tournaments better,” no stone is unturned. “Even the smaller details like how many nights you get at a hotel during a tournament,” are discussed.

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Her advice to the younger players is smart, simple. “Look outside of your bubble and see where things are right now. Learn about the past. See where we were. See where you are now. Think about where we want to get to. Everyone is here together. I think it’s really easy when you’re young to think you’re out here on your own.”

One of those younger players is Swedish player Belinda Bencic. In 2012, Bencic made her debut for the Switzerland Fed Cup team. The following year, she won the French Open and Wimbledon girls' singles titles. And then, at the Premier 5 event in Toronto in 2015, Bencic won the biggest title of her career, besting the World No. 1 at the time, Serena Williams, who had won the last four Grand Slams in a row. Bencic was surely on her way to greatness. Then the unthinkable happened-- the teen was sidelined with a back injury that kept her off the court for two months in 2016. She then suffered a wrist injury that required surgery and kept her out for five months in 2017.

But Bencic is back. “It’s been difficult,” she says. “When I was younger, I was winning. Happy to be here. Everything went up, everyone started paying attention, but I was only 18. People expected me to act like I was 25.”

 Getty Images, Clive Brunskill

Getty Images, Clive Brunskill

“I felt the pressure. I felt the expectations, but I was doing it to myself as well. It was not easy.” Today she says she’s grateful for her injuries. It allowed her to take a step off the court, literally and figuratively, and get her mind right. “Now, my perspective has changed. I’m enjoying being back.  I’m playing because I love it, not because I’m playing for someone else. I’m happy to be healthy on the court.”

“I felt the pressure. I felt the expectations, but I was doing it to myself."

As for those someone else’s, Bencic is not here for the body shaming or the haters. She says for instance, “My body was changing from a girl’s to a woman’s. You hear comments about yourself. People telling you how you should look. What your weight should be.” Her downtime allowed her to build up the confidence to block out the haters,l. “I realized when you’re up, everyone is cheering you on. But when you’re down, they love to say, ‘Oh, your career is over.’”

Bencic says she’s happy to make a “comeback” but she’s not doing it for anyone but herself. “I don’t care so much what others think of me anymore. When you’re young you care, and you can get caught up.” In all the ups and downs of the sport-- including the competitive side. These are World Champs we're talking about.  

But Bencic is all about that mentorship life. “Some players are not friends, it’s true. But some players really try to help each other and be supportive of each other. I appreciate the players who were trying to help me. I want to do the same for younger players when I’m older. When you come on tour at 16 you don’t know anyone. For someone to be nice to you and want to practice with you, it makes you feel good. I hope to be the same person.”

“We are pretty good at knowing the difference between on and off the court,” she says. “I can face my best friend on the court and I’m going to try and beat her. You can’t be mad. On the court, I’m trying to beat her as a tennis player. Not as my friend.”

“I can face my best friend on the court and I’m going to try and beat her. You can’t be mad. On the court, I’m trying to beat her as a tennis player. Not as my friend.”

Maria Sharapova shares this “on court” and “off court” mentality as well, explaining,“I firmly believe that there are never too many opportunities for women to be supporting other women - both on- and off- the court.  Just recently I announced a women's entrepreneur program that I've partnered on with NAWBO, the National Association of Women Business Owners. At the core, it’s about helping female business owners who are starting from the very beginning of their journey get to the very top, through mentorship, education and professional guidance. And it’s a chance for me to share my passion for helping other women business owners thrive.”

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