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By Blair Henley | Wednesday, June 4, 2014

women in tennis

Ernests Gulbis's comments about women in tennis sparked controversy at Roland Garros. But does he have a point? 


Following his third round victory at the French Open, a reporter asked world No. 17 Ernests Gulbis whether his two younger sisters are also on track to play professional tennis. He replied without hesitation, saying he hopes they choose a different career.
“A woman needs to enjoy life a little bit more,” he explained. “She needs to think about family, needs to think about kids. What kids you can think about until age of 27 if you're playing professional tennis, you know? That's tough for a woman, I think.”
Let’s keep in mind that Ernests Gulbis makes controversial statements as consistently as he angrily demolishes his racquet on the court, which is to say, almost daily. Like many others, Maria Sharapova was quick to discount his view, considering the source.  
“I don't think we can take everything serious when he speaks,” she said, laughing. “I mean, let's be honest with that.”
But it’s hard to deny that Gulbis has a point. While the idea that women should be out “enjoying life” while men pursue meaningful careers is laughably archaic, the opposing forces of career and family are often more difficult to manage as a woman. When starting a family could mean the end of your career as a tennis player, it becomes ever more difficult to find a balance.
For female players who find themselves in a new hotel room in a new city nearly every week for 10 or 11 months of the year, even engaging in a healthy romantic relationship is challenging. Former No. 1 Martina Hingis struggled with this during her career.
“Sometimes when you travel a lot, you always want that private life to be part of it, and it’s very difficult to have a relationship,” Hingis said. “On the men’s side, it’s much easier. They just travel with their girlfriends.”
She’s right, of course. Male players seem to have no trouble finding WAGs willing to come along for the ride. While there can be value in playing a supporting role, it is a far more socially acceptable position for a woman. It’s not often you see match cameras panning to the player box to focus on a concerned-looking boyfriend or husband.

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Thanks to Roger Federer’s wife Mirka, who was once a professional tennis player herself, Federer now has four children in addition to his record-breaking achievements on the court. Current world No. 2 Novak Djokovic, 27, is expecting a child later this year with his fiancĂ©e Jelena Ristic. Players on the men’s tour aren’t torn between career and family. They can have both, simultaneously.
There is currently just one married player in the top 50 on the WTA Tour: world No. 2 Li Na. Caroline Wozniacki was due to become the second this fall until her golfer fiancĂ© Rory McIlroy very publicly broke their engagement. For a man, marrying a WTA player usually means accepting an almost exclusively long-distance relationship or giving up a traditional career to travel along with his wife. There aren’t many takers.
Then, assuming a female player can find her Prince Charming mid-career, her chosen sport will inevitably put children on hold. Just weeks before Wozniacki’s breakup, she expressed a desire to be a “relatively young mother.” Would the 23-year-old have retired early to pursue outside interests? We’ll likely never know.
Resuming a tennis career after birthing a child has happened just three times in the Open Era. Evonne Goolagong Cawley had a daughter at age 26 and won Wimbledon three years later in 1980. American Lindsay Davenport won four titles after returning to the tour following the birth of her first child. Former No. 1 Kim Clijsters retired in 2007, birthed a baby girl and came back in 2009, winning two more Grand Slams before retiring again in 2012 at the age of 29.

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While some female tennis players may want to compete for as long as possible – former No. 4 Kimiko Date-Krumm is still on tour at age 43 – others, like Wozniacki, are interested in a different route. And with no extended off-seasons or four-year windows between Olympic appearances, the options for women in tennis are limited. Making matters worse, the average age on tour has risen to 26.25 from 23.70 two decades ago.
Current No. 31, Daniela Hantuchova, 31, has expressed a desire to start a family, but she knows it will have to wait.
“I always said that while I enjoy what I’m doing, I’ll keep going,” she said. “I gave all my life to this, so it would be a shame not to use it the best I can. There’s a time for everything.”
Though not all female tennis players are set on finding a partner and starting a family, those who are must consider factors foreign to their male counterparts. Women can have it all, too – just not at the same time. That, as Gulbis said, is tough. 


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