In every way, the 2012 French Open women's singles final appeared to be a mismatch. Maria Sharapova, the winner of multiple grand slams, towered over Sara Errani, who was in her first grand slam final, in both size and stage presence. As the two 25-year-olds met at the net for their pre-match photographs, Errani barely cleared Sharapova’s shoulder. There was one listed category in which the 5-foot-4 ½ Errani led the 6-foot-2 Sharapova, though: weight. According to their Women’s Tennis Association profiles, Errani weighs 132 pounds, while Sharapova comes in at 130.
Sharapova's body mass index, using the height (6-foot-2) and weight (130 pounds) listed on her WTA profile, would be 16.68. That puts her close to the BMI of a human with a Barbie doll's proportions, which has been estimated at 16.24. According to the New York Times Health Guide, people with a BMI less than 17.5 are "considered to be at risk for health problems related to anorexia."
But in person, as well as on television, Sharapova—who did not play at the U.S. Open due to a shoulder injury—hardly looks gaunt. While undoubtedly slender, she has broad shoulders, toned arms, and muscular legs. In other words, it would not take a trained carnival weight guesser to estimate a number well north of Sharapova's listed 130 pounds.
While Sharapova's measurements are the most outlandish on paper—she is the only one of the 110 players in the 2013 WTA Media Guide with a BMI less than 17.5—she's hardly the only player whose listed weight fails the eye test. When compared against one another, or simply against logic, many of the players’ weights seem very, very wrong, all somehow erring on the low side. The 6-foot Kristina Mladenovic, the only other player in the media guide with a BMI under 18, is listed at an incredible 132 pounds. Caroline Wozniacki, who is 5-foot-10, supposedly weighs a paper-thin 128.
When I asked Max Eisenbud, Sharapova’s longtime agent, about his client’s suspect metrics, he didn’t insist that the Russian star, the highest-paid female athlete in the world, does in fact weigh 130 pounds. Instead, he said, “I don’t know too many women that like to speak about their height and weight. But if you look at all sports, the height and weight is never right. Not just tennis.” He added, “I think this is way down on the list of things the WTA needs to focus on.”
The point here is not to shame these women for weighing more than what is listed. Rather, the bigger issue is why the weights of women’s tennis players are an official statistic in the first place. Because there’s no compelling reason for us to know how much Maria Sharapova or Caroline Wozniacki really weighs.
Why are the listed weights of women’s tennis players so inaccurate? While vanity is undoubtedly a reason, another is simply outdatedness. Players fill out their WTA player information cards when they first make it on the tour, typically as teenagers. Though players are inclined to submit new heights as they grow taller, adding a parallel increase in the weight column is not as natural an impulse.
The men's and women's tours rely on the players to report and update their own heights and weights, a fact that recently led John Isner to move into a tie for the title of "tallest man in tennis" at age 28. Men’s players, according to ATP representatives, do regularly change their official weights after adding muscle or beginning a slimming nutritional regimen.
But the men, too, are not immune from fudging the numbers. After qualifying for the ATP tournament in Cincinnati in August, 18-year-old Mackenzie McDonald told the press that he’s hoping to improve his physique, saying he only weighs 140 pounds, or 142 “on a good day.” After his press conference, an ATP representative gave McDonald a player information card to fill out, and he bumped his weight up to 145.
That sort of rounding error is minor, however, compared with what’s standard for women, according to players and tour insiders. A representative of the WTA says the tour tries to make sure listed heights and weights are "reasonable," but could not recall a submitted height or weight ever being rejected. Unlike the men, women who add muscle rarely contact the tour to adjust their listed weights, and so the numbers stand, presenting often wildly unrealistic ideals for those who might look to emulate the players' proportions.
As bogus as many of the weights may seem, on-the-record indictments are unsurprisingly quite rare. Writing for the New York Sun in 2007, Tom Perrotta challenged Serena Williams' listed weight of 135 pounds, as Williams entered that year's Australian Open in noticeably less impressive physical condition than normal. "She's at least 20 pounds heavier than that, probably more," Perrotta wrote. He also cast doubt on the amount of time she said she had spent training in the offseason, writing that "by the look of things, many of these workouts involved a remote control and a 50-inch plasma screen."