U.S. Women In Golf, Tennis: Where Are You?

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Here's today's sports question: Who are Victoria Azarenka and Yani Tseng?

Give up? Well, they only happen to be the No. 1 women's tennis player and golfer in the world. If you don't know them, you're obviously a sexist fantasy football zealot.

No, no, I'll give you a pass.

After all, at a time when U.S. women are succeeding so across the cultural spectrum, when more and more of our girls also grow up playing sports, it remains both an irony and a mystery why American female athletes are enjoying such little success in the popular international individual sports. Good grief, it if hadn't been for Lindsay Vonn skiing down the Alps ahead of everybody else this winter we'd never get a sports page headline, women's division.

The American failure in tennis and golf is especially curious because women's team sports receive commensurately so little notice in the United States and, consequently, the players receive so little remuneration compared with what male American team athletes make.

You'd expect, then, that the most promising American young female athletes would naturally migrate to individual sports, especially to tennis and golf, where the big money is made. But obviously this is not the case.

In tennis, Europeans dominate. In golf, Asians. The only U.S. female tennis player in the top 35 is Serena Williams, who comes in at a modest No. 9. And Serena is 30 years old, which, in tennis terms, is like Jamie Moyer pitching in the big leagues at 49.

There was something poignant the other day when there was a reunion of the pioneers of women's tennis, who, led by Billie Jean King, symbolically turned pro for a dollar apiece in 1970. Seven of the nine were Americans. It was a stark reminder of how we've bequeathed women's tennis to the rest of the world.

In golf, Yani Tseng from Taiwan is far more dominant than any male in any individual sport. She could well be the top athlete in the world, but how many Americans have even heard her name? We're so terribly provincial, and especially since so many of the other top women are South Korean, professional golf played by people in shorts goes unnoticed here.

There are various theories why South Koreans do so well on the links. Everything from the fact that they're culturally adroit with their hands to strong father-daughter relationships to a concentration on hitting lots of balls when they're young, rather than just playing matches. And, goes the thinking in tennis, poorer Eastern European girls will work harder and longer, hitting shot after shot, than will spoiled American iPhone kids.

Whatever, for females the greater athletic opportunity is in individual sports, and American women, who are accomplishing so much more in so many endeavors, are now missing on the links and absent on the courts.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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