She's Got Game

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com April 09 2009 12:00 AM ET

Women's
professional tennis is coming to grips with one of the most
unusual cases in its 36-year history: an intersex player
competing on the tour.

Sarah Gronert, a
22-year-old German, was born with both male and female
characteristics. Gronert, who had surgery at 19 and is legally
a woman, has been cleared by both the International Tennis
Federation (ITF) and the WTA Tour to compete -- unlike
male-to-female transsexual Renée Richards, who was
forced to sue to secure the right to play on the women's
tour in the 1970s. "It's a one-of-a-kind case," says
out lesbian Martina Navratilova, an 18-time Grand Slam singles
champion who now comments for cable outlet the Tennis
Channel.

An ITF spokesman
confirmed by e-mail that Gronert "is legally and biologically
a woman and entitled to play on the ITF and WTA professional
circuits." The ITF oversees the four Grand Slams and
tournaments that fall below the main WTA circuit. A WTA
official said the tour became aware of Gronert's case last
spring and conducted a review with a medical delegate during
the summer and fall of 2008. Gronert requested the review, the
official said.

Under its bylaws, the
WTA can question the eligibility of a player and require gender
verification to determine sexual status. "The rule is
designed to recognize the verified and legitimate gender of
individuals, while also minimizing any gender-related
advantages," said tour spokesman Andrew Walker. "Under this
rule, Gronert is eligible to compete on the tour as a
female."

Gronert has enjoyed
moderate success this season, winning two ITF titles. This
week, Gronert, who has earned less than $7,500 in prize money,
is at a career high ranking of 574, some 180 places
above where she finished in 2008.

Much remains unclear
about Gronert's past and she has declined to speak to the
media. The details of her case and the player's medical
records are confidential, Walker said. Gronert could not be
reached through the ITF, which declined to provide additional
information. A spokesman for the German Tennis Federation said
Gronert does not want to discuss her "personal
background."

According to intersex
expert Heino Meyer-Bahlburg, an intersex condition
covers a wide spectrum of possible manifestations that
generally reflect some kind of congenital anomaly. "There are
many different conditions and many different hormonal
pictures," says Meyer-Bahlburg, a professor of clinical
psychology at Columbia University.

For instance, a person
could be biologically male in terms of chromosomes, gonads, and
sex hormones but be completely androgen-resistant -- meaning
the body does not respond to male sex hormones -- so that the
child is born with female-looking external genitalia and at
puberty has little or no secondary hair and develops breasts.
The other extreme, says Meyer-Bahlburg, could be someone who is
internally female (with a uterus, ovaries,and vagina) but has
developed external genitalia that are male-like from exposure
to male sex hormones during fetal development. "Then you have
all kinds of conditions in between," he says.

Neither the ITF nor the
WTA say they have received any direct complaints about Gronert.
But her presence on the tour has stirred some controversy,
prompting at least one person to make disparaging comments.
Schlomo Tzoref, the coach of a player beaten by Gronert at an
event she won in Israel, said: "There is no girl who can hit
serves like that, not even Venus Williams," according to the
New York
Daily News

.

"When I heard her
story, I was in shock," he added. "I don't know if
it's fair that she can compete or not. She does have an
advantage, but if this is what the WTA have decided, they
probably know best. If she begins to play continuously, within
six months she will be within the top 50."

At the Sony Ericsson
Open last week in Key Biscayne, Fla., players grappled to put
the unusual situation in perspective. Most said it was hard to
comment since they had never seen or heard of Gronert and
weren't familiar with either intersex people or the
WTA's rules regarding gender verification. "It's hard
to judge," said third-ranked Elena Dementieva of Russia.

A few shared concerns
that they might be at a disadvantage against someone who
benefited from different muscular, hormonal, or skeletal
development. "If there is a big difference in the muscle
structure and the body structure and if you see she is dominant
over the rest of the girls, then we might have a little
issue," said 10th-ranked Nadia Petrova. "But I think we all
should have a chance to do what we do. I think it's fair
enough if she's been approved by the WTA and ITF. Why not
give her the green light?"

Others simply
empathized with her situation. "It's a difficult
situation as a human being," said former number 1 and out
lesbian Amélie Mauresmo of France. "Good for her
to make the choice about how she feels inside. For me
that's the main thing for me -- to feel good about
herself."

Some observers
suggested that as long as Gronert wasn't winning big titles
or taking large chunks of prize money that her case would
remain relatively uncontroversial. But that smacked of a double
standard.

"As long as she
maintains her place at the end of the pack, it's OK,"
said tennis historian Bud Collins, who has covered tennis since
the 1960s. "There would be an uproar if she were to become a
champion." Collins added that if she's been cleared to
play, "then you have to live with it."

According to
Meyer-Bahlburg, it's nearly impossible to say if Gronert
would have an advantage or disadvantage without knowing more
about her specific condition. "In theory, yes, she could,"
he said, "but normal male and females vary so much that
unless one knows what the person was before and their hormone
history, it's difficult to say if they have an undue
advantage."

If nothing else,
Gronert's case opens a new can of worms for the sport.
Navratilova competed against Renée Richards --
formerly Richard Raskind, who underwent a sex-change operation
and began competing in her 40s -- in the 1970s and was later
coached by her. She said it's a "loaded" situation.

"You don't know
if it's an advantage or not," she says. "It might not
be a level playing field if you need to take hormones to be a
full-on woman." Navratilova stressed that "if she thinks
she's a woman, then she is a woman to me."

Gronert's case is
clearly different from Richards's. Tennis authorities tried
to bar Richards from playing when she first began competing,
but she sued and the New York supreme court ruled in
her favor. Richards reached a ranking of number 20 and made the
doubles finals at the U.S. Open in 1977.

In an e-mail, Richards
wrote that competitive sport requires a "level playing field,
juniors against juniors, seniors against seniors, men against
men, women against women." She added that the judge in her
1976 case rightly opined that future cases should be treated on
an individual basis and that her case should not be viewed as
precedent-setting.

"He did this mainly
because of my age -- 41 -- knowing that I was not going to take
all the prize money away from Chrissie, Tracy, Martina,"
wrote Richards, who is a practicing ophthalmologist in New York
City. "Since that time, whenever I have been consulted, I
always hark back to his decision, and then warn that someday a
good player, 22 years old, would come along and dominate the
game. Has that happened now? I have warned about this for
years."

Richards has always
maintained that she sued not to further her tennis career but
simply to continue competing. She said a transsexual or
intersex person that had male development to some degree past
puberty could have an advantage over genetic women in terms of
bone mass and muscle size that was not completely undone by
surgery. "Now, whether she dominates the field or not remains
to be seen. How well does she play? How much stronger is she
than the other players her age?" she wrote.

TV commentator Pam
Shriver, who played against Richards, said the game probably
needs to make space for Gronert. "This person has to be able
to sit somewhere in life," said the tennis hall-of-famer.
"I can't see her playing on the men's tour. If she
has female equipment, I don't think she can be
banned."