Friday, January 29, 2016

My response to "Stop Freaking Out About Upsets in Women's Tennis" by Lindsay Gibbs

Before reading any of this, I ask that you read Lindsay Gibbs' article in its entirety.

If you are too lazy to read the article or didn't understand, I will try to give my fairest possible summary in bullet point version.
Main argument: Journalists' overreaction to upsets in women's tennis is to some degree misogynistic or sexist.
Points
-Tennis analysts are making a big deal of upsets
-Upsets are more common in women's tennis not because women are worse at tennis
-They are more common because women's tennis has recently acquired depth (which only came along recently because sexism held back the sport)
-They are more common because women play best-of-3 sets
-They are more common because women do not serve as well (which is a result of hormones)

I would argue that the coverage of the upsets overwhelmingly has been very good. The coverage shows why readers should tune into women's tennis. The vast majority of the coverage has not been sexist at all.

In men's tennis, there are in fact less upsets, making the first week of the grand slam events simply unimportant. That's not the case on the women's side where a lot happens in the first two rounds that does eventually affect who takes home the trophy. Therefore, making a big deal of upsets is what women's tennis fans should fight for - not against.

I completely agree with Gibbs' claim that there is no correlation between a high number of upsets and a less interesting product. As Courtney Nguyen points out, upsets are what create Cinderella stories. If a journalist is saying that women's tennis is boring because there are more upsets, that is bad journalism and should be called out. However, if a fan says they prefer to see names they recognize in the final rounds, that is a matter of personal preference and should not be criticized as sexist.

Now that we have agreed that upsets are more common in women's tennis and that this is not in any way inherently bad, let's look at why they happen. Gibbs gives three reasons and one is perfect, one is half-correct, and the other is dead wrong and sexist by Gibbs' own standards. Let's start with the positive.

Gibbs points out perfectly that upsets are more likely in the best-of-3 format. She seems to claim that this difference alone explains the entire gap. "Indeed, Carl Bialik of FiveThirtyEight crunched the numbers last year, and found that in lower-level tournaments where men and women both play best-of-three matches, they have similar rates of upsets." I would like to see those numbers and how Bialik arrived to that conclusion, but I agree that the difference of format explains away a large portion of the difference.

The rest of the difference can be explained by the parity of the women's game. Some people like to call it a lack of dominance by the top players. Gibbs calls it depth. I like to call it parity, because I think that is a more neutral term than the previous two, but I'm splitting hairs. The issue here is how Gibbs explains the existence of the rapid appearance of depth in the women's game saying it is "mostly thanks to widespread, pervasive cultural sexism." This is a not a central point to the argument, so I don't want to get stuck on this. Let's just say Gibbs' article would have been stronger if that whole paragraph was taken out, because it is only a distraction.

For me, those last two points explain away the entire gab in the amount of upsets, but Gibbs adds one more reason, which really wasn't necessary. Earlier in the article, Gibbs slams Jo-Wilfried Tsonga for nothing more than having used the word "hormones," but now Gibbs is going to use the same word.

She points out that there are more breaks of serve in women's tennis as a result of "hormones," which breaks rule No. 4 of her "comprehensive cheat sheet, guaranteed to make sure you don't sound like a sexist jerk."

In my opinion, the increased number of breaks in the women's game would actually be a reason for less upsets. As Gibbs points out, "this creates more pressure situations." In other words, women's matches have more big moments in each set, giving the better player more opportunities to show that they are in fact better. However, this is negated by the first best-of-3 format, so this point really is irrelevant.

At the end of the day, the larger amount of upsets in women's tennis can be explained statistically. It is not the result of hormones, bad play, mental fragility, or an underlying issue of sexism in sports and culture. It is simply what we should expect based on solid sports analysis, and any journalist who uses an upset to make a headline is simply doing a good job promoting the sport - not perpetuating a sexist narrative.

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