Why There Are Few Married Women's Tennis Stars and Why It Matters

Merlisa Lawrence CorbettFeatured ColumnistJuly 26, 2014

Li Na and her husband at press conference after she won the 2011 French Open.
Li Na and her husband at press conference after she won the 2011 French Open.Feng Li/Getty Images

When it comes to balancing long-term relationships and careers, professional men's tennis players seem to do a better job than their female counterparts.

Maria Kirilenko recently announced that she was breaking off her engagement to hockey star Alex Ovechkin. She became the third high-profile professional woman's tennis player in the past two years to see marriage plans derailed.

Earlier this year Rory McIlroy called off his engagement to Caroline Wozniacki after invitations had gone out. Maria Sharapova's nearly two-year engagement to basketball player Sasha Vujacic ended in 2012. 

Meanwhile, last week world No. 1 Novak Djokovic married his childhood sweetheart Jelena Ristic. She is pregnant with their first child. Djokovic is among three married men in the top four. Li Na is the only married woman in the Top 25. Svetlana Kuznetsova, ranked No. 26, is also married.

The lack of married female tennis stars is a reflection of society. No matter how many glass ceilings are broken in boardrooms, the truth is that the burden of balancing work/life falls mainly on the shoulders of women.

Even successful executives believe this, according to an article written in the March 2014 issue of the Harvard Business Review.

The article was based on nearly 4,000 interviews and a series of surveys. The conclusion: Men feel far less guilty about spending more time on the job. 

The debate over work/life balance is older than the women's movement. Women from Paris to Peoria tackle this issue daily. So why should it be any different for female tennis players? Perhaps because tennis is as close as sports gets to equality between men and women. 

No other professional sport offers women as many opportunities to cash in. Last year, Serena Williams earned a record $12.4 million. She's earned more than $56 million in her career. That's more than any woman in the history of sports. It's more than double what retired golfer Annika Sorenstam made in her career.

Chris Evert marries British player John Lloyd in 1979.
Chris Evert marries British player John Lloyd in 1979.Uncredited/Associated Press/Associated Press

Petra Kvitova earned more money winning Wimbledon, one tournament, than Michelle Wei has earned all year.

The disparity is even greater when looking at lower-ranked players. Catriona Matthew, No. 25 on LPGA money leaders, has earned $368,393 in 14 tournaments. Meanwhile, WTA No. 25 Venus Williams has earned $780,000 in nine tournaments. 

Throw in millions more in endorsements and you've got some fabulously wealthy women. Could that be part of the problem?

Yes, it's 2014, and many men are OK with their wives being the breadwinner. However, how many are truly cool with it? How many men could set aside ego and agree to postpone starting a family while their wife chased titles? 

When Kim Clijsters won the U.S. Open in 2009, she was the first mother to win a Grand Slam since Evonne Goologang-Cawley in 1980. Only three mothers have won a Grand Slam in the Open era.

If you count Djokovic, whose wife is due to give birth later this year, there have been three fathers—Djokovic, Stanislas Wawrinka and Roger Federer— to win Grand Slams in the past two years. 

The obvious biological differences between motherhood and fatherhood can explain why there are fewer mothers playing tennis. But why so few wives?

Clijsters got engaged to Lleyton Hewitt in 2000. They broke off the engagement. She married American basketball player Brian Lynch in 2007 and gave birth to their first child in 2008. Her return to tennis, post-motherhood, was brief. She retired again in 2011. 

Andre Agassi was still winning Slams after he got married, divorced and remarried. After a high-profile, two-year marriage to Brooke Shields, Agassi settled down with tennis great Steffi Graf. The two reportedly met after they both won the French Open in 1999.

Graf retired later that year. She was pregnant with Agassi's child when they married in 2001. Agassi continued to play until he retired in 2006. Graf, winner of 22 Grand Slams, was essentially a stay-at-home mom while Agassi continued to chase glory.

Federer's wife, Mirka Federer, has become a fixture at his matches. Before marrying Federer, she was a professional tennis player. Her career-high rank was 76. She retired in 2002, aged 24, due to a foot injury. 

In a New York Times article from 2012, Federer told reporter Christopher Clarey that his wife makes it possible for him to balance his tennis career with family: "I know how fortunate I am... And maybe that’s one of the reasons that makes me very happy when I’m playing."

Li's husband, Shan Jiang, is the most famous tennis husband on tour. That's mostly because his wife has made him a running punchline in her post-match speeches. 

Kim Clijsters gets a kiss from her husband after winning the 2010 U.S. Open.
Kim Clijsters gets a kiss from her husband after winning the 2010 U.S. Open.Al Bello/Getty Images

They married in 2006. She won both her Grand Slam titles after that.

Chris Evert won plenty of her Grand Slam titles after marrying John Lloyd in 1979. Unfortunately, that marriage ended before she retired. That was in the days before social media, the longer tour schedule and increased demands of sponsors. Juggling that with a spouse seems far trickier for the ladies.  

Klara Koukalova married a Czech soccer player named Jan Zakopal. She took the surname Zakopalova. She won zero tournaments during the seven years as Mrs. Zakopalova. She has three career titles wins, including one soon after her divorce. She took back her name, Koukalova. 

It seems unless you have a devoted husband, like Li, who is willing to travel the globe with you, supporting your tennis, marriage is dicey. 

That's probably why many top female tennis players postpone marriage until after they retire. It's not because they are tennis stars. It's because they are career women with a unique lifestyle that's just not conducive to a happy marriage.

Insert teacher, doctor, lawyer or accountant. Doesn't matter what profession. Show me any young, attractive, wealthy professional woman who travels all the time and is rarely home. Unless she has a male Mirka, that's a woman who needs to stay single.