Stop Freaking Out About Upsets in Women's Tennis

Upsets have been the topic du jour at the Australian Open, and not without reason: 12 out of the 32 women's seeds lost in the first round, the most in a Grand Slam since 2001. Naturally, analysts have turned on the Women's Tennis Panic Light.

by Lindsay Gibbs
29 January 2016, 10:30am

Photo by Lukas Coch/EPA

In the women's semi-finals at the Australian Open, No. 1 Serena Williams defeated No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska and No. 7 Angelique Kerber defeated unseeded Cinderella story Johanna Konta.

In case you can't do the maths, that means the women's final four had three top-seven seeds, including the two top seeds from the top half of the draw. Not bad at all.

Despite these results, upsets have been the topic du jour of the women's tournament, and not without reason: 12 out of the 32 women's seeds lost in the first round, the most since Grand Slams switched to 32 seeds in 2001. Six more seeds were eliminated in the second round, meaning by the time the Australian Open reached the Round of 32, only 14 seeds remained in the draw.

On the men's side of the draw, only five seeded men lost in the first round, and only two lost in the second round.

Naturally, tennis analysts have turned on the Women's Tennis Panic Light.

"The seatbelt sign should be switched on for the world's leading female tennis players when they arrive at Melbourne Park," Daniel Cherny wrote at the Sydney Morning Herald, adding that statistics "point towards a general trend of uncertainty within the women's game."

Indeed, the upsets in women's tennis are only getting more and more frequent. In the last decade, 10 or more seeded women have lost in the first round of a major four times, all since 2012. In the men's game, it's only happened once since 2004, and not at all since 2013.

"The reality is that being a higher-ranked player means very little in today's WTA," Erik Gudris wrote for Tennis Now.

No. 2 Simona Halep was upset in the first round of the Australian Open. Photo by Lukas Coch/EPA

Every time a bevy of upsets rolls through women's tennis, the same narrative is repeated over and over again with disgust: Outside of Serena, nobody in women's tennis can be counted on. The top women in tennis today aren't talented enough or mentally strong enough for sustained success.

One writer referred to it as a "vicious cycle of inconsistency" that is "plaguing" the WTA. Men's tennis star Jo-Wilfried Tsonga called it "hormones."

But Courtney Nguyen, Senior Writer for WTA Insider, sees things differently. Not only does she see the upsets as logical rather than appalling, she sees their increase as a sign of the improvement of women's tennis overall. Simply put, women's tennis is just much better, from No. 1 to No. 1,000, than it was even a decade ago.

"The depth is causing this," Nguyen said. "It's a hell of a lot harder to get past the first few rounds than it used to be."

While men's tennis has also been improving in depth, those improvements haven't happened at the same astronomical rate as women's tennis. How could they? Mostly thanks to widespread, pervasive cultural sexism, women's sports lagged far behind men's sports when the Open Era of tennis began over 40 years ago.

Additionally, rule differences make the women's game inherently more volatile at the majors, because women play best-of-three sets compared to men's best-of-five.

"Over the course of a longer match, the better player will win," Nguyen said. "That's just math."

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 very similar rates of upsets.

"Male stars have more chances to exert their superiority over opponents and the opportunity to stage hard-fought comebacks even after falling behind by two sets," Bialik wrote. "Generally in sports, the longer the contest, the greater the chance the favorite prevails."

If you need another reason why women suffer more upsets on the biggest stages in the sport, look no further than the first stroke of every rally: the serve.

It's not controversial to note that men generally have more upper-body strength than women—in this case, "hormones" actually makes explanatory sense—and therefore tend to have more powerful serves. Meanwhile, the serve isn't that big of a weapon for most women, and it's easier to be broken.

So while many men's matches are routine hold after routine hold, and usually come down to a few break-point chances, nearly every game in women's matches is in doubt. This creates more pressure situations, which then further increases the volatility of serves, particularly in big moments.

Unfortunately, a large contingent of tennis fans, analysts, and even players themselves still equate service breaks with mental lapses and frailty. This is a damaging, unfair notion that permeates the way that women's tennis is viewed, and it contributes to the down-right disrespectful rhetoric used to describe many of the best female athletes in the world.

"When you say that men have incredible mental strength and women don't, what is the metric you're basing that on?" Nguyen said. "I think that it's very unfair to the women, simply because if you knew you couldn't hold your serve, how nervous would you be on court?

"When people see upsets on the women's side and the automatic assumption is 'they're mental,' well, it's a very dangerous lens with which to see the women. It's loaded. And it comes from everywhere—I hear it from players and coaches and that stems to commentators and reporters. That's problematic on a massive level. I don't think these women understand the disservice they're doing to their game."

Speaking of the mental aspect of upsets, Diane Elayne Dees, the founder of the blog Women Who Serve, thinks that on-court coaching, which is allowed at WTA events but not at majors, is partly to blame for the prevalence of upsets in women's tennis. Since the women become used to calling their coach out for help during high-pressure situations, Dees thinks it becomes a clutch and they become lost without it.

But she also thinks that the lack of dominant athletes on tour goes deeper than that—over time, messages that women receive from society every day are damaging at a core level.

"I think it's deeply embedded in the conscious that women and girls can't be too confident or too aggressive," she says. "It's not something that anyone thinks about, it's just unconscious. It's not OK for women to be that bloodthirsty."

Unfortunately, at the end of the day, we still live in a sexist society. And because of that, upsets or not, people will use any excuse to discount women's sports.

"If you get on the internet and there are tons of upsets, then people are using that as a reason to say how bad women's tennis is," Dees said. "But even when the upsets aren't there, they're still saying that."

Johanna Konta was one of the most exciting stories of this Australian Open. Photo by Lynn Bo Bo/EPA

Most of the time, sports fans root for the underdog and crave a good upset—just look at March Madness in the U.S. Perhaps it's about time to bring that attitude to women's tennis majors.

"I love it. The first week belongs to the women—anyone can beat anyone, so you're tuning into everything," Nguyen said. "Whereas with the men, you pretty much know what's going to happen."

She has a point. After all, the two most exciting stories of this Australian Open—on the men's or women's side—were on display when 27-year-old Shuai Zhang, ranked No. 133 in the world, faced off against 24-year-old Johanna Konta, No. 47.

Zhang, a Chinese qualifier, had been ranked as high as No. 30 in singles, but came into the Australian Open a staggering 0-14 at majors. She broke that streak in impressive fashion last week, shocking No. 2 Simona Halep. After that victory, she wept openly on the court, and told reporters that she had come to the Australian Open thinking this might be her last major tournament.

Then she just kept going, taking out Alize Cornet, Varvara Lepchenko, and last year's semifinalist Madison Keys, before falling to Konta in the quarters 6-4, 6-1.

Konta then took over as the most inspiring player in the draw: this time last year, the Brit was ranked No. 144 and lost in the first round of qualifying. Though she had a great 2015, winning several ITF tournaments before making it to the fourth round of the U.S. Open, nobody expected her to make it to the final four.

And yet she did, scoring notable upsets over No. 8 Venus Williams and two-time Australian Open semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova along the way to becoming the first British woman to reach a major semifinal in 33 years. There she fell to Kerber, who will try and score the ultimate upset by toppling Serena in the final.

Beating Serena is a long shot, of course, but Kerber has done it once before. And really, isn't that why we tune in to sports time and time again, because nothing is scripted and anything is possible?

"You don't get [Cinderella stories] unless there are upsets," Nguyen said. "They don't come out of nowhere. You can't have it both ways."