When it comes to women’s rights, tennis is the New Zealand of the sporting world. It was the first to see equality in prize money, well before other big dollar pro sports which still insist on putting women in the back seat (literally). On the court women can wear whatever they like (pending sponsor’s approval of course). Times have changed since the 90’s when female players in junior tournaments in Australia were still being forfeited for wearing shorts. Women umpire men’s matches and all seems well for females in the tennis community. It was 1973 when Billy Jean King and the eight “renegades” threatened to boycott the US Open, won equal prize money and changed the course of history.
Four decades on, has the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) realised its dream of gender equality? According to Martina Navratilova, there is still a long way to go. She told BT Sport about the double standards that still exist, “With Serena it’s ‘she doesn’t have much competition.’ Well, Roger (Federer) didn’t have much competition for a while either but they weren’t bemoaning that fact, they were never saying there’s no depth in men’s tennis. They’re quick to say it about women.”
It’s not just the lack of competition in women’s sport that is granted double standards by media outlets around the world (and some spectators). When a woman is playing well, it’s because of the genius of their male coaches (think Li Na and Carlos Rodriguez) but men’s coaches only tweak their game and it’s the male player who is the genius. If the women aren’t winning a string of titles, it’s their hormones stopping them from being consistent. Never do we hear mention of Margaret Court’s 24 grand slam wins (the most ever) including taking all four in one calendar year.
Women like Margaret Court are often written out of history in this way. When Andy Murray won Wimbledon last year, the headlines told us that he was the first Brit to do so in 77 years. Never mind that four British women had won Wimbledon during that time.
When women grunt or scream after hitting the ball, journalists complain that their matches should come with complementary ear plugs. When Rafael Nadal or David Ferrer grunt we read nothing from the pen of journalists like Richard Hinds from the Sydney Morning Herald who seems to be obsessed with female players grunting. I believe the ATP and WTA should do something to crack down on grunting but to pretend it’s just a women’s issue is feeding into old sexist notions that women are only present on the earth for men to look at and God forbid they make unladylike noises or assert their opinion.
The TV networks also do their best to make sure that women are never seen as equal to the men in tennis. During the Australian Open this year, Channel 7 often showed a men’s match on Hisense Arena instead of a women’s match on Rod Laver Arena (centre court). In one of these instances the match on Rod Laver was an epic which went to 10-8 in the third set between Maria Sharapova (Seeded 3) and Karin Knapp. Channel 7 did cross to the Sharapova match in the middle of the third set but for the rest of the time had shown the first set of a Wilfried Tsonga match on Hisense Arena. On a separate occasion Channel 7 televised a Gael Monfils match instead of a Victoria Azarenka match on centre court. Both of the women’s semi-finals were scheduled during the day whereas the men’s were in prime time at night. Too bad if you enjoy watching women’s tennis and are one of the millions of Australians who work during the day. You would be forgiven in assuming the women’s tennis had finished after the first week. Channel 7 almost never lets a woman commentate a men’s match but has no problem with Bruce McAvaney (who knows nothing about tennis) sit in the bunker and make asinine comments about how important it is for a player to win a game when they are 4-0 down. Thanks for that Bruce.
When men win in straight sets, few people mind because they’ve played a whole three sets but when women win in straight sets it can look like a whitewash, the match can be short, it can look as though the loser had no fight and the standard of tennis is low.
Commentators on this issue conveniently forget that it’s not women’s fault that the tennis administrations through the ages have deemed them too weak to play five sets. Now that women have forced tournament organisers to treat them as human beings and pay them equal prize money, sexist journalists have cried foul because women don’t work as hard for their money as the men.
The debate about women playing five sets is brought up every time the Australian Open comes to the country. Everyone’s got an opinion but, of course, no one asks the female players whether they want to work harder for the same pay. If they don’t want to play five sets then it should not happen. Considering the sexism they have to endure day in day out we can call the extra pay they’re getting per hours worked as compensation. Let’s not forget that the men’s smaller ATP events usually have higher prize money than the women’s WTA events. So the women have to work harder than the men to attract sponsorship dollars.
If a player is marketable, they will earn far more from their endorsements than in prize money. So they are under a lot of pressure to act according to the social norms that are forced upon all of us. Chris Evert was the original “glamour girl” in tennis and the media treated her very differently to her 80 match rival Martina Navratilova. Before one final in Florida, a paper labelled the match as “Good vs Evil”. Navratilova acknowledges that she was considered the “big muscular lesbian from a communist country” and it is common knowledge that she lost millions in endorsements when she came out of the closet in the 1980’s.
Today, occasionally comments from the media move from simple objectification like, “glamour girl” or “Polish beauty” to more explicit sexism similar to Navratilova’s era. After the 2013 Wimbleon final, Marion Bartoli was told she was “never going to be a looker” during a radio rant by BBC commentator, John Inverdale. While Bartoli had to move on with her life and try to negotiate her way through these offensive statements, Inverdale went on to commentate the men’s final for the BBC the very next day.
How this obsession with beauty translates into income is revealed by the difference in endorsements for Sharapova and Serena Williams. Although Williams is the better player and earns more in prize money, the white skinned, blonde Russian, Sharapova earned $10 million more than Williams last financial year. In 2012-2013 Williams earned $8.5 million in prize money and $12 million in endorsements whereas Sharapova earned $6 million in prizemoney and $23 million in endorsements.
Through the stories of Navratilova, Bartoli, Williams or through their own experiences, sportswomen learn very quickly to look and behaving a certain way to win sponsorship. This means wearing very short skirts, make up, jewellery; anything impractical and prohibitive to playing tennis to their full potential and doing everything they can to be physically attractive. Or even posing nude as Agnieszka Radwanska did for ESPN Magazine.
Maria Sharapova has been the highest paid sportswoman in the world for the last nine years. This is incredible and shows the impact of Billy Jean King and the WTA founders threatening to boycott one tournament 41 years ago. It was brave but it was also a simple gesture that could be emulated if there are other brave female athletes willing to organise and fight for what they deserve. Although tennis has come so much further than every other sport, when you look at the bigger picture and go look closely at women’s tennis today, the contrast from the men’s game is stark. The sexism in tennis today is more subtle than it used to be Or we are desensitised to it because we face it every day, everywhere – through unequal pay at work, objectification of women’s bodies in pop culture and every time we play or watch other women’s sport. Regardless of how subtle the sexism in tennis is, it will still take enormous bravery to speak out against it. So that the female players are not in isolation when they do so they need to maintain solidarity and keep organising. Lessons we can take into every aspect of life, even if we’re not great sportswomen ourselves.