Women’s tennis can show science why excellence alone isn’t the whole story.
You don’t need to be a tennis fan, or even a sports fan, to have been gripped by the women’s draw in this year’s US Open. In the first all-teenage final since Serena Williams crossed racquets with Martina Hingis in 1999, Britain’s Emma Raducanu (18 years old) beat Canada’s Leylah Fernandez (19 years old, by a matter of days) to lift the title in what was only her second Grand Slam tournament.
The pair’s journey through the draw gripped in the way that often only elite sports can. Fernandez, 18 at the start of the tournament and celebrating her 19th birthday just before reaching the semi-finals, despatched a succession of star names along the way to the final, not least last year’s winner, Naomi Osaka. Raducanu, gifted an easier route to the final, had only reached the main draw after winning through three qualifying rounds, and she did so – and indeed, won the entire tournament – without dropping a single set. She was the first woman to do so since Serena Williams in 2014, and the first British woman to win a Grand Slam tournament since Virginia Wade back in 1977.
But not only were the pair making history, they were also telling a great story. Two great stories. How long could Fernandez’s underdog run last? Could Raducanu become the first qualifier in the Open era to win a major tournament? Could she become the first British woman to win a single’s title since the 1970s?
It was also a stark reminder of what the women’s game has been missing. It’s not that women’s tennis hasn’t been competitive, or that it hasn’t been high-quality – it’s indisputably both of those things. In fact, women’s tennis is probably much more competitive than the men’s game – you only have to look at how diverse the list of winners has been in recent times. In the last 5 years, each of the 4 Grand Slam tournaments has had four different winners; not since Serena Williams in 2015 has a single player chalked up more than one Grand Slam win in a calendar year. And you have to go back to 2007 to find someone other than Serena Williams winning more than one Grand Slam in a calendar year (Justin Henin). Competitiveness and quality have not been lacking.
But until the US Open, it hasn’t had a narrative in a very long time. The men’s game has been blessed with the immortal triune of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic, all telling different but intertwined stories. Could Federer stave off the challenge from Nadal and remain top of the pile? Could Federer ever beat Nadal on clay? Could Nadal overhaul Federer’s haul of Grand Slam titles? Will Djokovic end up surpassing both of them? Would any of them ever be supplanted by a younger challenger?
It’s this absence of an epoch-defining rival for Serena Williams that has made her narrative much more abstract, as she’s been competing more against the greats of yesteryear – Navratilova, Graf, and especially Court – than her rivals across the net. Her pomp has been unlike earlier eras, where the Evert/Navratilova dichotomy was succeeded by the Navratilova/Graf and then the Graf/Seles one. These eras were magnetic. They had arcs, subplots, triumphs, disasters, redemptions, and revenges. You followed the whole season, because the season was a chapter in a larger, unfolding story.
And it’s this absence that has diluted sustained interest in the women’s game. Because you need the great narratives. You need the big questions. These are the things that lift an otherwise impressive but frequently monotonous pursuit of excellence into something grander, something transcendent. Who’s going for history? Who’s going to stop them?
It’s something that contemporary science is also lacking. Here too, there’s no shortage of excellence, but a dearth of narratives. Sydney Brenner used to tell a great anecdote along these lines mocking the vacuity of a lot of systems biology. He likened systems biologists to being like civilians in the cockpit of an aeroplane: “Look at all this!” the systems biologist would exclaim, “Look at all these different dials moving back and forth and things going up and down!” “Ah, but what’s going on? What does it mean?” you’d reply, to which the systems biologist would merely grin and exult “I don’t know! But still – look at all those dials!”
“Low input, high throughput, and no output” was Brenner’s pejorative summary of this experimental approach, but systems biology has gone on to become the dominant paradigm in molecular bioscience, so much so that you seldom even hear the term “systems biology” any more – it’s become the tent in which everyone’s gathered. Proteomics for protein, transcriptomics for RNA, lipidomics for lipids, metabolomics for metabolism, and genomics for DNA, and increasingly now all conducted at single-cell resolution.
But where are the narratives? We’re awash in novelty – mostly technical, but sometimes observational or mechanistic – but there’s little in there of narrative substance. Brenner also used to speak disdainfully of “data miners” and in one sense his caricature was on the money – nowadays, everybody is digging a hole and fairly oblivious to what’s going on outside it. There are fads (liquid-liquid phase separation being a good current example), but the indecent rush with which everyone scrambles to get on these bandwagons and link their field to whatever topic/technique is in the spotlight betrays the lack of a compelling story arc in their own field.
There is Big Data but few big ideas.
Fields used to have ideas they could converge around. Once upon a time, biology was replete with them: vesicle transport versus cisternal maturation for the mechanism of Golgi function, the mechanism of endoplasmic reticulum protein import, the puzzle of how the innate immune system recognises non-self microbes, and many more.
Nowadays, it too often feels as though we’re still pursuing the same ideas that previous generations of scientists formulated, but with bigger and flashier tools. We too often confuse volume for profundity. We mistake scale for risk. And we incentivise novelty over insight. We don’t challenge or try to rewrite the ideas themselves. And we don’t ask enough questions.
We need to step back, take the time to think, and ask some big questions. This is not something individual labs can do alone – it’s a challenge for research communities, because it’s the communities that have to engage with these ideas and write the stories. Probably one of the most damaging aspects of the relentless pursuit of excellence at all costs has been the breakdown in interpersonal interactions at the community level, and the subsequent fragmentation of research communities. Instead of individual labs pursuing different elements of what might sum to an overall direction for the community, we nowadays often have individual labs working on topics in which they are not just the specialists but sometimes almost the sole exponent.
It’s a very 21st century challenge, and one that we can all embrace. Obviously we’re all committed to doing the best work we can, but where are we, as a community, going? What’s our story? And what are our questions?