Tennis Surface Mapping, Part 2: What's different on the women's side?

How does the map of surface preferences for women's tennis compare to men's? And do the differences mean anything?

As a follow-up to yesterday's post about mapping the surface preferences by country of men's tennis, I wanted to do a brief post showing the same map for women's tennis. Some of the countries don't appear on the women's map because there aren't enough players from those countries in the sample, but most do. Here is the same map for women's surface preferences:

Google Visualization API Sample

There are some pretty noticeable differences. Canada and Portugal, for example, rate as solid hard-court countries on the men's side but mild clay-court countries on the women's side. And it's not like there are single players like Milos Raonic skewing the average; players like Vasek Pospisil, Frank Dancevic, and Erik Chvojka have Raonic's same surface numbers. And there isn't a single Canadian men's player that has a significant clay preference. The Canadian women, however, have a more mixed draw of surface preferences. For every hard-court specialist like Stephanie Dubois, there's another clay-court specialist like Sharon Fichman. The distribution between hard and clay preferences skews about even.

This brings up the million dollar question that's bugging me: Should the men's and women's surface maps converge to the same over time? Your answer roughly reflects two equally plausible views. If you say yes, that says surface preference is mostly determined by your home country's common courts and any differences are transient and due to small sample size. This is supported by a reasonable number of countries that are colored the same on the men's and women's maps.

If you say no, that says you can have meaningful differences between men's and women's surface preferences from the same country. The most fitting explanation would be some sort of selection bias with regards to what kinds of players are more likely to succeed at an early age.

Consider Canada again and a little bit of a stereotypical example. If you're a potential young male Canadian clay-courter, you're probably also playing youth hockey, because Canada. Maybe clay-court athletic builds translate into success in hockey more than hard-court builds, and the potential clay-courters go off and play in developmental hockey leagues because the rewards of hockey are much greater. The potential women's clay courters and hard-courters are probably also playing youth hockey, but when choosing paths to becoming a professional athlete, professional tennis offers a more lucrative payout than professional women's hockey. Tennis would then have a little bigger of a draw for high-level female athletes in Canada at an earlier age, resulting in a more even mix of clay and hard-court players.

It's not clear whether meaningful surface differences by country can or should persist (or to make it even more ambiguous, whether a mix of both can be true). The ideas of selection bias and to what degree other sports compete for tennis' potential talent pool is an interesting question in itself. And on the women's side, tennis is not only competing with other sports' potential talent pools in each country, but probably also how encouraged women are to pursue professional athletic aspirations in general. I think John Inverdale's comments at Wimbledon made it pretty clear that it's still sadly a factor in 2013. And if meaningful differences do in fact exist, what kind of countries are more likely to have those differences and why. Anthropology majors, leave your theories in the comments.

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