Bleeding Love: Menstruation and its effect on tennis
We’re watching the third round of the Australian Open and I’m sitting next to my 10 year old niece.
We’re watching Coco Gauff, a 19 year old American woman who at this point in time ranks number 4 in the women's singles rankings and number 3 in the women's doubles rankings. She is playing extremely well. Breezing through really.
There's one point that results in Gauff almost going into a split on the court. We both wince empathetically and my niece asks me ‘Do you think she gets her period?’
I blink, surprised. ‘Well, yes of course.’
My niece nods, ‘ She must not be on it now, I don't think she’d be able to do that if she was’
We continued watching but I was distracted. Would she be able to? How much would her cycle affect her play? Does she get cramps while serving? Do all tennis players just grit their teeth and get through it? When I played that's what I did but surely the professionals had a little more help?
So after the match was over I looked it up. There were quite a few articles on the matter but almost all of them said the same thing. That there wasn’t a lot of research done into women's bodies in the field of exercise science. What a surprise!
"Scientific design is done through a male lens, and women have traditionally been considered delicate flowers," Dr Stacy Sims said to ABC News in 2023. "There's a perception that we don't know enough about men [as it is] — so why would we want to study women? Then you have to take their menstrual cycle and hormones into account, which we don't know enough about."
During a menstrual cycle, hormones tend to fluctuate to varying degrees resulting in changes in inflammation, metabolism, muscle activation and body composition. All things that seem to be pretty important to a professional athlete. When combined with cramps and body aches, not knowing the science behind your hormones could make or break a match.
For Danielle Collins, the first 6 weeks of her 2021 season had her playing with endometriosis. The pain that came with it was so intense and crippling it led to an emergency surgery. Just a few months after the surgery, a new, pain free, Collins was able to win not one, but two major titles in Palermo and Silicon valley.
‘I think if somebody would have told me at the beginning of the year that I would win two tournaments back-to-back, I don't think I would believe them because I think before the surgery, that was just not possible and almost unimaginable.’ Collins said to WTA Insider in 2021.
She even eventually went on to become the runner up in the 2022 Australian Open.
Other women in tennis have spoken up about their periods as well, former British number one tennis player, Annabel Croft, told CNN she once felt so dizzy she had to walk away from a match ‘I didn’t feel like I could talk about why I had to do this. Like so many female athletes I suffered in silence.’
Croft has also been one of the many women to speak up about the strict rule at Wimbledon that only allows players to wear white. ‘It’s a nightmare, particularly because the skirts are flapping up in the wind the whole time and you definitely don’t want to have an accident,’ she said.
Similarly, Zheng Qinwen, A Chinese born 19 year old player has attributed her loss to the menstrual pain she had during her match.
"It's just girls' things, you know," Zheng told reporters after the defeat. "The first day is always so tough and then I have to do sport, and I always have so much pain on the first day. And I couldn't go against my nature.I wish I could be a man on court, but I cannot at that moment. I really wish I can be [a] man [so] that I don't have to suffer from this."
Zheng (who is really only 9 years older than my niece) was plainly telling the world that her period affected her to the point that she wished she wasn’t a woman. That some of the symptoms of her sex hindered her from playing the sport she had made her life.
The real issue isn’t that women want special treatment more than others but that there is a serious lack of research done into menstrual health and the absence of conversation surrounding it in a sporting context. Some women choose to take birth control because they find it helpful in managing their menstrual symptoms but this can only be a temporary solution. If we make the assumption that a female tennis player's career will last the average 21 years and then look at a woman's fertile cycle then it can be assumed that she has 250 moments throughout her career that could be affected by her cycle.
For now, it seems that female athletes need even more credit because they really have been doing all of this (even the body defying splits) while on their period. With next to no extra help at that. Now that I know that Ash Barty is likely winning Grand Slams with just a tampon and some ibuprofen, the one time I was cramping and winging (loudly) about my period seems pretty embarrassing in comparison. At least I don’t have to run 2.5 - 3.1 miles per match in front of millions of people.
As more eyes turn towards women in sport hopefully more funding will go into the menstrual sciences. It’s time the barriers to sport are broken down so that future generations will have it just a little easier.