It seems like everyone has an opinion on every female athlete’s body shape, and I often find myself wondering why this isn’t the same for the male athletes. You never read or hear someone saying “maybe if Fed had a six pack he would have won Wimbledon” or “Froome is too skinny, he needs more muscle if he wants a watch deal” but yet women receive this criticism daily in the world of sport.
Of course this is a double standard that we get used to, and to be honest, I can’t be bothered to talk about this or the people behind this criticism. You learn that these people don’t know you, but they do know exactly what they are saying, and I don’t think it is going to stop any time soon so why waste my breath. The people I would like to talk to about this matter are the young girls who want a career in sport, in particular tennis, and also the parents and coaches that support them.
I spent years of my career trying to change my body shape to be the player people wanted to support, and this hugely affected my game and mental health negatively. By people I am talking about coaches, trainers, sponsors, media and supporters that all made me feel like I was unprofessional for not looking like their ‘ideal’ player. It took a long time for me to realize how ridiculous this was and how fortunate I am to be in a sport where you can be any shape and size. From the heights of Venus to the pocket rocket Dominika, the broad shoulders of Maria to the slight frame of Agnieszka, you can be any shape and any size as long as you have the game to match it.
That is the key point. Create a game to fit your body type, don’t waste your time trying to create a body type to fit the game… it won’t work. Sharapova had to play an incredibly aggressive game from the start, using her height and levers as her strength, to help avoid her lack of leg speed and movement around the court. She has improved her movement incredibly over the past 10 years, but it will never be her strength. I am sure when she looks at her Grand Slam trophies she doesn’t mind too much as she took what she had and maximized it.
This is the same for all top players. Wozniacki wasn’t born with rock solid consistency, she has worked to make it in to her strength, relying on it against the bigger hitters as she can’t match their strike. I bet a few people are reading this thinking I am being critical which makes me laugh. Don’t you think they figured out their game a long time ago? To be good you need to know what you are good at and where you struggle. Develop a game playing to your strengths and avoiding the parts you are not so good at to find the game for you. You should still be busting yourself every day to improve the bits you aren’t so good at, but the chances are that even if they improve dramatically, they won’t become your strength so your game will still be appropriate to you.
In so many sports weight and physique actually does matter and can directly affect your performance. If you are a cyclist then every gram counts and the power to weight ratio has to be spot on. If you aren’t tall you can’t be a rower, if you aren’t light you can’t be a ballerina, the list goes on.
But the brilliant news is that in tennis you can be whatever the hell you want to be! And thank god for that because I don’t know how those other sports do it! Coaches, the media, sponsors… they will all tell you that to be a top player you have to be a certain way. Even though they have been proved wrong so many times before they still bang on about it, screwing up a lot of would be players in the process. I see it again and again and it infuriates me that they can still get away with it.
If a coach or trainer says that you would benefit from being stronger, faster, sharper, more powerful or lasting longer, that is positive constructive criticism as developing these physical attributes could really help you on the court. If they say you need to lose weight, put on muscle, tone up or look fitter, thank them for their help and find someone who isn’t focused on what you look like, but instead is concerned with how you perform. You can get stronger without gaining muscle, you can last longer without losing fat, so don’t let them con you in to thinking that is the only way.
Every shape has pros and cons… don’t let people only focus on the negative side, that is unfair and unrealistic. So whatever build you are, have fun figuring out what you are good at and work on what you are not, and then walk on to court and deliver YOUR game. Tennis is the most competitive sport in the world for female athletes… don’t lose yourself.