“Roberta liked Flavia… they shared a tennis court” (apologies to Virginia Woolf)

I can’t have been the only viewer of the U.S. Open women’s final, who teared up at the sight of the two competitors, Roberta and Flavia, embracing each other lovingly at the end of  the match. (For a point of comparison, think Djokovic/Federer, or rather, don’t.) Or Venus embracing Serena after their match, and whispering “I’m happy for you,” after her own defeat, just as her brow furrowed while watching the upset of the semi-final that deprived her sister of the trophy she longed for.

What Woolf in A Room of One’s Own thought her imaginary female novelist of the future could show was friendship between women undamaged by jealousy: “Is she taller than I am? How does she do her hair?” Woolf wished for something more complicated, and I think the Italian pair would have made her happy.

I’ve been writing about friendship for a while, trying to, and aware of how often I have been a bad friend. It’s not so much jealousy around appearance, though I feel prepared to kill any woman with bone straight hair. It’s more a matter of envy―envy of certain accomplishments, or rewards for those accomplishments. It’s long been a cliché that women are not trained to compete, by which I mean compete without suffering after losing. What men do, or supposedly men do. I didn’t stay up late enough to know whether after the final match, Djokovic and Federer embraced, cradled each other’s heads, murmured gentle words of friendship and support.

TENNIS277

Ladies Doubles, Provincetown, circa 1970. My silver-haired mother far left; her (much taller) usual partner, second from right.

I grew up watching my mother play tennis. She was an avid amateur, competitive and talented. She often played with a particular (much taller) woman friend, whom she continued to like and admire, regardless of the score, though of course they kept score. I rarely give her credit but I have to admit that on the tennis court, if nowhere else, she could compete with joy.

In the days of our consciousness-raising group and seventies feminism we used to talk about the “economy of scarcity,” how if one woman had or did X, that meant the other could not. We tried. Everybody’s different is what we were supposed to learn in kindergarten, and relearn in feminism. It’s not an easy lesson to hold on to, to practice, especially in academia, where it so often feels that winner takes all. With the image of Roberta and Flavia before me, I want to learn to love losing.

And then there’s Elena Ferrante’s Lila and Lenu, but that’s for another post.