The Rally: Dueling Genders

Wednesday, April 10, 2013 /by

In this week's Rally, I talk to Kristy Eldredge, who writes the blog Overhead Smash, about the subject of sexism in the dual-gender world of tennis. See Part II on Thursday.

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Kristy,

Has there been more talk of sexism in tennis this year than in the recent past? It seems that way at TENNIS.com, Twitter, and on the Internet in general. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising; sexism in all walks of life is a constant subject on Twitter, at least among the people I follow. I feel like it’s had an effect on the way I watch and write about tennis, hopefully for the better, or at least the fairer.

Gender is a double-edged sword for the game. On the one hand, no other pro sport brings men and women together the way tennis does. There's no women's baseball or (American) football leagues; while there are women's basketball and golf leagues, they never play at the same tournaments as the men. No women will compete at the Masters this weekend, obviously; the big breakthrough is that the club that hosts it, Augusta National, has finally admitted two women members, Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore. By these standards, tennis, where men and women play at many of the same tournaments, on the same-sized court, and earn the same money at the biggest events, is ahead of the game. 

The downside of that proximity is that it's much easier to make comparisons between the men and women than it is in other sports. Easier, in other words, to make sexist comparisons. And it hardly started in 2013. In the amateur era, Bobby Riggs wasn't the only "chauvinist pig" among the men. We know about the comments over the years from Richard Krajicek and Pat Cash expresssing their low opinions of female tennis players. Last summer, we heard Gilles Simon say that he wanted to re-institute unequal pay between the ATP and WTA at the majors. And as recently as January, we were informed by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga that, unlike men, women have "bad things" in them called "hormones" that make them unstable on court. It's also telling that when people talk about trends that have supposedly changed the way the sport is played—slow courts, powerful strings, increased stamina—it's always in the context of the men's game. "Tennis," in these discussions, is assumed to mean men's tennis.

But comparisons can run different ways and show us different things about how men and women react to similar situations. You had a good piece on your blog about how, during the Rome final last year, Maria Sharapova and Li Na agreed to keep playing through a downpour, just a week or so after Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic had complained their way off the blue clay in Madrid, and been called "weenies" by Serena Williams for it. Sometimes the way the women go about their business makes the men look like the dramatic and sensitive ones, no? Do you think there's more sexism in tennis than other places because of the proximity of men and women? Or is it the same as everywhere else, and the proximity just makes it more obvious?

The player who has found herself at the center of these debates this year is Victoria Azarenka. The most recent came incident at Indian Wells, when she and Sam Stosur each withdrew from the tournament the same day that Roger Federer went ahead and played with a bad back. There was talk about how Federer showed the women what being professional (what being a man) is all about. That's illogical, of course—the three injuries had nothing to do with each other. And Vika would go on to withdraw from the next tournament, so hers must have been pretty serious.

Would a man have been criticized the same way if the situation had been reversed? To play devil's advocate, I do think Azarenka's history hurt her in this case. She has pulled put of 21 events over the last four years; Federer, as we know, rarely, if ever, pulls out or retires from a match. Azarenka can strike me as unconcerned about anyone—opponents or paying fans—other than herself. Or is that a sexist observation in itself? You need to be selfish to be a winner, right?

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Hi Steve,

I do think there's been more discussion of this topic in tennis commentary recently, and I think the reason is the new crop of vocal feminist (or at least WTA) oriented writers who are having an invigorating effect on the scene: Ben Rothenberg at the New York Times, Courtney Nguyen on Sports Illustrated's blog, Hannah Wilks here on TENNIS.com, the writers at The Changeover.

I think it's a good thing, because I do think sexism is more present in tennis than other sports. The trappings of conventional gender roles are built into tennis's garden-party beginnings—surely it’s the only competitive sport that women still play in a dress or skirt. (Only a few women flout that convention, and the ones who do, like Azarenka, often draw criticism for it.) White clothing was traditionally worn to hide sweat, so that young ladies and gentlemen could (literally) court each other after playing. So there is, in the background, a setup of traditional gender roles/behavior, and shades of that still cling. Until recently, the women curtseyed to royalty at Wimbledon, and many compete with Amazonian power in ruffly designer dresses.

There’s also the lingering three-set/five-set disparity. This seems to me a tradition that could be usefully overturned. Though tennis players aren't paid by the hour, as you pointed out last year during the Gilles Simon brou-ha-ha, and the women have been providing some thrilling three-setters lately, I don't understand why there isn't more talk of them playing five sets at the Slams. Is the answer as simple as: Billie Jean King, who broke barriers and is a spokesperson for gender equality, doesn't think anyone should play five sets?    

Leaving that aside, your question about the proximity of men and women in tennis is intriguing to me. With basketball, women just grabbed the sport and did it exactly the same way as men, but not in conjunction with them—on their own. Maybe that’s why the WNBA thrives with a healthy following, and no one raises the issue of it being a lesser sport. But women tennis players come in for frequent criticism from journalists for play that’s deemed subpar. And this is what (rightfully) has the feminist writers so incensed. 

Why is women players’ valor and athleticism not emphasized, the way the men’s is, first and foremost? Why would a flurry of double faults from a woman player, say, draw a sneer from a male columnist when the same thing from a male player would draw a sympathetic shake of the head? Why would a bout of moonballing be replayed on ESPN2 to the open sniggering of Brad Gilbert and Chris Fowler, when no less a player than Rafael Nadal sometimes resorts to defensive moonballs and that isn’t seen as cause for open ridicule? 

When women were finally granted equal prize money, Maria Sharapova mentioned that it had been a long, hard battle and “no one supported us.” There’s a practice in tennis of looking past the female players and focusing on the male—as you said, “tennis” is usually assumed to mean “men’s tennis.” But that women’s place in the pantheon of tennis excellence is equal to men’s was brought home to me by a special on Tennis Channel—one of the “Top 50 Players of All Time” features. As they got down to the Top 10, I started to go through possibilities in my mind. Would it be Sampras? Was Nadal next? Over and over the answer instead was “Graf,” “Evert,” “Navratilova”—all of whom have more Slams than the top male Slam winner of all time, Federer. Of course, most tennis fans know this, but does the world at large? My own ignorance startled and embarrassed me. Why was my assumption that no women were in the top tier? The fact is, they are. As Maria alluded to, the achievements of women in tennis can go unnoticed.

But that doesn’t mean women players are beyond criticism. I think you can fairly criticize Azarenka for frequent withdrawals. To compare her to Federer in this respect seems unfair, though, because he almost never withdraws or retires—he puts to shame many of the men (including the early Novak Djokovic). But what about your question, is it sexist to call Azarenka selfish for her many withdrawals? I think maybe it is. Looking for information on Nole’s retirements, I kept finding the phrase “was forced to retire.” Whether it was due to breathing problems, knee, shoulder, or other woes, writers on the Internet characterized it as something beyond his control. Which may be, again, the invisible hand of sexism, which helps the men by granting their behavior automatic respect, while subtly undermining the women by doing the opposite. 

It’s not like Nole was never criticized—you also come across “the Retirement Slam” when you poke into these records for him. And Andy Roddick got in his famous jab at him about SARS and bird flu, emphasizing how frail and possibly self-dramatizing Djokovic seemed. So while I think both sexes attract criticism, I guess my argument is that it’s the degree and frequency of the criticism that seems unequal.

You raised many interesting points, and I have no idea how many I got to. I’m sure you aren’t surprised by women players’ Slams records, but do you agree there’s something odd about the fact that they eclipse the men’s records, yet are often spoken about as lesser players? And I want to return to your question about the men being more diva-like than the women players, for which I think there's some argument. 

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