Games played by women are more fun to watch

Give me Williams versus Hingis any day rather than Henman versus Kafelnikov
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The Independent Online

The stirring Olympic victory of the Norwegian women's football team prompted me, a couple of weeks ago, to ponder at which level of the men's game they might meet their match.

The stirring Olympic victory of the Norwegian women's football team prompted me, a couple of weeks ago, to ponder at which level of the men's game they might meet their match.

I invited readers to speculate, and received a splendidly provocative letter from James Manson of Swansea, who writes: "Your lower-most suggestion was Nuneaton Borough and I can assure you that if Nuneaton Borough were actually to try against the Norwegian women's team (some sort of financial inducement would be required to ensure this) the match would be stopped at half-time with Nuneaton 10-0 ahead. If you want to look among male teams against whom the Olympic gold medallists would actually get a match, my best guess would be an under-17 regional team, and even then my money would be firmly on the lads."

Whether or not that is a fair assessment, I am grateful to Mr Manson for indulging my fondness for hypotheticals. Another interesting one to consider is England v Manchester United (a runaway victory for United, I feel sure, even if England had Beckham and Scholes). Or how about the present England team against their 1990 predecessors? The 23-year-old Paul Gascoigne taking on Gareth Southgate? Gary Lineker being marked by Phil Neville? 6-0, I reckon, or is that being generous to the current lot? Whatever, it can't have been easy for Lineker to sit through the Finland match last Wednesday, and all credit to him for so engagingly making the most of the evening's only bright spot, when John Motson and Trevor Brooking stood, frozen to the core, being bombarded with litter as if several giant wind machines had been placed behind an adjacent rubbish tip.

Had Judy Finnegan not popped out of her dress 24 hours later, Motson and Brooking would definitely have looked the most hapless pair of the week. And the comedy of the situation was compounded by the utter misery of what had gone before. In fact I rather alarmed myself by howling with laughter, that slightly hysterical release of pent-up emotion that you might experience if, say, you watched a cinematic double-bill of Ingmar Bergman's gloomiest film, followed by Steve Martin's funniest.

Let us return, though, to the business of women taking on men in the sporting arena, not hypothetically but actually. Probably the most memorable example occurred in 1973, when the 55-year-old former Wimbledon and US Open tennis champion, Bobby Riggs, challenged Billie Jean King to an exhibition match. More than 30,000 spectators turned up at the Houston Astrodome, and 50 million more watched on television. Sensationally, Mrs King won. And 12 years later Riggs was humbled again, when he and Vitas Gerulaitis lost a doubles match to Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver. All of which makes me wonder how the Williams sisters might do now against, say, the brothers Amritraj. Hammer them 6-0, 6-0, I shouldn't wonder.

Take away the age handicap, though, and, in most sports reliant on strength, speed or endurance, it is a mismatch to pitch men against women. Cathy Freeman could not outrun Michael Johnson any more than Laura Davies could out-drive Tiger Woods. That said, there seems to be an increasing number of sports in which it is more pleasant, and more instructive, to watch the top women performing. Tennis is one example. Give me Williams v Hingis any day, rather than Henman v Kafelnikov.

I am beginning to feel the same way about golf, too. I watched much more of the Solheim Cup than the World Matchplay Championship, not least because, for a club handicapper perennially looking for pointers, the swing of Beth Daniel is a more rhythmical thing, of greater beauty, than the swing of any man you care to mention. Moreover, the women play a game I can at least vaguely relate to. Bobby Jones once said that Jack Nicklaus played a game with which he was not familiar. For me the same is true of Tiger and co. They hit the ball so far, so accurately, that it is hardly recognisable as golf any more.

That said, I am not sure I like the proposal to turn the Alfred Dunhill Cup into a glorified pro-celebrity event, even though I can relate completely to the game as played by Kiri Te Kanawa and Catherine Zeta Jones. The Dunhill Cup is flawed, and any golf event which relies on the Duckworth-Lewis method of scoring clearly needs help. But do we really want to watch celebrities topping their shots into the Swilken Burn? Not that P-Y Gerbeau, the director of the Millennium Dome, did anything of the sort in last Wednesday's Dunhill pro-am. My friend Tony, who played with (and was charmed by) Padraig Harrington, tells me that P-Y returned a gross 73, lower than many of the pros in the field. Which rather suggests that, this time next year, Greenwich will have a dazzling indoor driving-range.