Separate but equal?

In the world of professional tennis, the men, when asked, say they believe in equality. They also say none of the women players can successfully compete against them.

The women don't protest.

Tennis is a sport where strength and speed are essential, and while the women are highly gifted, world-class athletes, they seem to understand they have some limitations in comparison to their male counterparts.

Former world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic is the fun-loving sort you would imagine game enough to take a shot at playing against a man. But she just laughs at the suggestion.

"No -- I never thought about that because I have a coach who was No. 13 in the world, Andrei Pavel, and I play some points against him sometimes and he always beats me," Jankovic said. "I've even lost to some young juniors, 17-, 18-year-olds, in practice matches. We have our own tournaments and I'm not good enough to be on the men's tour. I don't even know why I'm talking about it."

James Blake, a former top-10 player who has fallen below No. 150, can't imagine any woman making a statement against the men.

"It's no offense to them and I'm all for equality, but it's just a different game," Blake said. "The speed's different. The strength is different. Their skill is amazing, they're just as skilled mentally out there, but it's just a different game."

Tennis, however, is not void of legitimate co-ed competition. Each year, mixed doubles is played at the four Grand Slam tournaments. And next year, mixed doubles will debut at the Olympics.

While there's never been a formal crossover where a woman has entered an ATP tour event, there have been a number of notable non-sanctioned challenges.

Undoubtedly the most famous was the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs "Battle of the Sexes" at the Houston Astrodome in 1973. More than 30,000 fans attended and an estimated 50 million watched on TV as King walked away a 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 winner.

The London Sunday Times called the match "the drop shot and volley heard around the world." Never mind that King was 29 and Riggs 55, the encounter was about way more than tennis.

"I think that was a much grander picture for women," former player and ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez said. "It wasn't just about a girl beating up a man. It was monumental for equality and for women to have their presence known. Look how far we've come since then. Today, when you go to a tournament and there are men and women playing, you're paying for the ticket to watch both."

In contrast to the King-Riggs extravaganza, an impromptu challenge during the 1998 Australian Open definitely was about whether women can play against men.

That's when the then-teenaged Williams sisters believed they were good enough to man up. Venus, 17, and Serena, 16, marched themselves into the men's ATP Tour office at that Australian Open declaring they wanted to switch allegiance from the WTA Tour to the ATP Tour.

The sisters were not greeted with open arms -- there was no offer of a spot in any official ATP tournament. But they didn't go away totally disappointed. Karsten Braasch, once a top-40 player, but at the time ranked No. 203, was there and offered his services for their experiment.

This "Battle of the Sexes" took place on a backcourt at Melbourne Park unbeknownst to most fans at the Australian Open that day. The rules were the same for both sexes.

Braasch, drinking a beer and smoking cigarettes on the changeovers, dominated. Serena was up first, and he quickly trumped her 6-1. Venus came next, and actually broke Braasch's serve once before falling 6-2.

"I didn't know it would be that hard," a humbled Serena remarked afterward. "I hit shots that would have been winners on the WTA Tour, and he got to them easily."

For his part, Braasch said: "Against anyone in the top 500, [they have] no chance, because I was playing like No. 600 today. I took at least 50 percent off my serve and only put in a few hard ones, because it was supposed to be fun."

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