Separate and Unequal: Tennis’ Sexism Still Runneth Over

From white and male only events to unequal pay, tennis has long been rooted in exclusion and otherism. This is so deeply ingrained, it has been normalized.

In 2020, tennis is still synonymous with the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), the male tour. The Tennis Channel is the male tennis channel. Google the term, ‘professional tennis.’ The WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) is not even a first page result. The sport’s power brokers erroneously agree with Australian player Marinko Matosevic, “… I don’t think that highly of the women’s game.”

45 years after Billie Jean King and eight players, the original 9,  formed the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) the women still are treated like second class citizens. Though far from the overt sexism and folly of the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes,” the sport still grapples with the ‘fairer sex’. It holds onto myths and dated ideas about women as truths and disregards science and what right in front of them.

You know, the girls, they are more unstable emotionally than us. I’m sure everybody will say it’s true, even the girls. … No? No, you don’t think?… But, I mean, it’s just about hormones and all this stuff. We don’t have all these bad things, so we are physically in a good shape every time, and you are not. That’s it.

French Player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

The sport’s sexism runneth over. The sport has long played a choreographed dance around this issue never rooting out the problem, yet doing just enough to save face. The most obvious sexist behaviors are begrudgingly acknowledged. The long list of headlines highlight this troubling culture. The perpetrator, player-coach-commentator-official, is minimally sanctioned and on-air commentators note this ad nauseum. Then the sport moves on to the next match, the next tournament, the next slam.

I was at the Olympics and saw Maria Sharapova play her … him,” said Ivan Urgant … One of the Williams brothers.” Shamil Tarpischev finished and was fined $25,000

Change has been slow.

The old guards are disappearing, hopefully never to be seen again.

With five incidents, the sport’s rampant sexism became global news. First, Serena Williams’ black catsuit prompted French Open officials to announce a new dress code for 2019. Then at the US Open, the chair umpire levied three unprecedented violations for coaching, smashing a racket and verbal abuse. She rightly fumed at the charges and rebuffed her treatment labeling it sexist. During this same tournament Alize Cornet also received a code violation for changing on the US Open court, something men do regularly.

At the 2020 US Open, Naomi Osaka pushed Tennis to shut down for a day to join the NBA, WBA, MLA in protesting police brutality. Tone deaf Novak Djokovic used the situation to launch a new players association sin women. This is not his first sexist statement or deed in tennis. In 2016 he agreed with Indian Wells Tournament Director Roger Moore, that women do not deserve equal pay. And in 2018, he dismissed the wide-claims of sexism against Serena Williams.

Djocokvic is not alone in his sexism. Sexist rhetoric is at the core of the sport. Viewing a match on mute is preferable to the negative, disrespectful and simply dated language commentators use. The suffocating sexism prompted Lindsay Gibbs to pen, How to Talk About Women’s Tennis. The ten point guide gives direction on everything from appearance to false equivalencies between women’s and men’s tennis. Published in 2014, too many still need the guidance.

Even the WTA’s marketing upholds sexist ideology. They sell sex and the ATP sells talent/skills. The WTA has never embraced body positivity, empowerment, sexual freedom and other relevant feminist/womanist stances. Its marketing campaigns, i.e. slogans, demonstrate its lack of awareness and vision. In 2003, “Get In Touch With Your Feminine Side,” 2011 “Strong Is Beautiful” and 2019 “What It Takes: Energy, Persistence, Fight, Will Power.” The pandemic forced the first meaningful slogan, one they could build a brand around, “Stronger Together.” This should be tennis in 2020, not the old idea of separate and unequal Djockovic wants to reinstate.

Neither wealth, class or queendom (meteoric talent) protect woman and girls. Althea. Serena. Naomi. Coco…

With a racket in their hands by five, professional tennis players live very sheltered lives. Their world revolves around the sport. Either playing or training year round, their formative years are in a world where their parents and coaches make decisions and they are expected to be compliant on and off the court. If all of their voices were as nurtured as their serves and grounds strokes, agency would not be so difficult for them. Tennis’ culture usurps these players’ agency with frightening regularity. This is not the same for the men who also begin when they were not much more than toddlers.

The journey from girl to woman is difficult. Girls need environments in which they can be taught and practice skills in self-discovery, self-definition and self-direction. Title IX and organizations like The Women’s Sport Foundation have long championed the benefits of sports as socio-cultural learning experiences which help girls’ self-esteem, body image and health.

Agency, the capacity to confidently make one’s own choices and decisions. 

Sports sociologists argue that agency and sports are a misnomer. Tennis intentionally limits women’s choices, decisions. The environment is ripe for perpetrators, sexual-financial-emotional. Unfortunately like gymnastics, professional tennis is inimical to agency.

If sports are central to boys’ development, then should it not be to girls? If so, the sport should be altered, not the role of the girls or women in it. The mission  should be to support and protect all players at all costs.

Founded in 1973 by Billie Jean King, to create a better future for women’s tennis, the WTA has accomplished much, but it still does not have parity with the ATP. Even worse, its feminist roots have eroded for capitalism and it has made some notable missteps along the way.

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has been led by Steve Simon since 2015. He has failed in safeguarding and advancing women’s tennis. From the lack of women’s matches on tv to the Sharapova debacle, he has not positioned the WTA for success. Though he was supported by Billie Jean King and the top players, Serena-Wozniacki-Sharapova, he has done more harm than good. The tour survives on the backs of its stars!

In 2019 tennis women dominated Forbes highest paid female athletes list. This year the only non-tennis player in the top 10 is United States Women’s National Team player Alex Morgan. This is not surprising. Tennis is the one sport where, when comparing men and women, the money is in the same stratosphere for the top players who are the face of the sport. For some, this supports the long held fallacy that equality in tennis lies in equal pay.

The modern tour, has evolved into a global business that offers players a pick of tournaments nearly every week of the year. At this year’s U.S. Open, each singles champion will take home 3 million, down from 3.8 million. This is a long way from when Wimbledon and the U.S. Open first began in the 19th century without a women’s event at all.

However, tennis continues to be separate and unequal with a notable gender gap in earning. As Daniel Levitt of The Guardian notes, “So far in 2018, 71 per cent of the world’s top 100 men have earned more than women of the same ranking, based on prize money per tournament played.” Only in the grand slams (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open) is the prize money equal; that is four of the 68 ATP and 58 WTA tournaments in 2018.

Even more startling is the disparity between the top female and male players’ career winnings. Serena Williams [86.3] and Roger Federer [117.5] are the highest-paid female and male tennis players of all time — though there’s a more than $31 million difference in their total career earnings. This is complicated by their success, Williams has won 72 titles and  23 slams, while Federer has   98 titles and 20 slams. Even Novak Djokovic  has earned more than Williams— $115,310,890 with 70 titles, 20 slams and Rafael Nadal — $102,326,975 with 80 titles and 17 slams.  Of course, this is also seen in their off court endorsements and business ventures. 

According to Forbes, “Among all tennis players, only Roger Federer made more than Osaka from endorsements.” This comparison is a little more difficult. As they are not as equally rooted as Serena and Federer in terms of longeivty, records, etc…

The sport does not have equal pay. Until all tournaments pay the women and men the same prize money, it is disingenuous for the sport to fly its equal pay banner. This is not the most daunting issue affecting women in tennis. As Judy Murray said, tennis is due its own #MeToo moment as it is an open secret that there is abuse in the women’s game.

“It’s hard not to feel humorless, as a woman and a feminist, to recognize misogyny in so many forms, some great and some small, and know you’re not imagining things. It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away. The problem is not that one of these things is happening; it’s that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly.”

Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist Essays

Otherism, sexism-racism-homophobia, in tennis is institutional. With examples ad infinitum, the sport refuses to change, to see the costs of their inaction. The sport, like Trump crafts its own narrative without regard for truth, reality. It is no surprise then that it touts its diversity, equal prize money or BLM (Black Lives Matter) commitment, while doing what it has always done. Take two steps forward in brilliant PR moves, and ten steps back. For every Andy Murray there are a thousand Ernest Gulbis’. In a week when Billie Jean King is named the first-ever global Ambassador for the world’s largest annual women’s team sports competition and figurehead of the Fed Cup, the sport remains problematic. From its rhetoric to poor representation, marketing and on the horizon ‘me too’ moment, women’s tennis remains separate and unequal. So has much really changed since The Atlantic’s 2014, A Brief and Recent History of Sexism in Tennis?

I wouldn’t like my sisters to become professional tennis players. It’s tough choice of life. A woman needs to enjoy life a little bit more. Needs to think about family, needs to think about kids. What kids you can think about until age of 27 if you’re playing professional tennis, you know. That’s tough for a woman, I think.

Ernests Gulbis, Latvian player

Women in tennis are still expected to adhere to a rather Victorian sensibility of womanhood. Still called girls on air, and they are exposed to insidious sexism from young. But women’s tennis looks different in 2020. The court outfits are no longer Stepford wiveish; the women wear a variety of skirt lengths, shorts, tanks, tattoos, piercings and vibrantly colored hair; they are young, older, single, partnered, mothers…they are owning the courts to the chagrin of players like Ernest Gulbis. They balk at otherism, even if their organization is absent or slow to support them. This costs them coverage, endorsements, energy. And still their matches are the most viewed. Last year the most-watched match was the US Open Women’s Championship between Bianca Andreescu and Serena Williams, which average 3.72 million viewers on ESPN. So Gilles Simon men’s tennis is not ahead of women’s tennis, you, like tennis, are just late to the party…

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