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Sexism in Women's Professional Tennis

Updated on September 11, 2020
Malia J profile image

Malia is a former collegiate tennis player covering topics relative to the sport.

Overview

Women’s professional tennis has faced decades of sexism. Those who’ve battled on the court have also spent years battling against general disregard, social commentary, and double standards.

Women's Tennis Today

The unfortunate truth is that sexism still exists in women's pro tennis. One of the more recent and controversial cases relates to the 2018 US Open Women’s Singles final. Instead of world champion Serena Williams competing solely against her young opponent Naomi Osaka, a secondary competition took place against the male chairperson.

Osaka’s historic win was blatantly overshadowed by strong evidence and claims of sexism. The media blew up the match overnight, exposing the harsh realities and sexist undertones of the sport.

Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka

The Osaka-Williams match marked major exposure and acknowledgment of sexism in tennis. While on court, chair umpire Carlos Ramos cited Williams three times for code violations.

Osaka ended up winning the match in tears amongst an aggravated and booing crowd. Williams alleged what Ramos did was sexist and that he treated her differently than male players. She also notably called him a ‘thief’ during the incident.

Aftermath

The aftermath caused debate amongst many both in and outside of the tennis world.

Former female tennis pro Billie Jean King commented - "when a woman is emotional, she's "hysterical" and she's penalized for it. When a man does the same, he's "outspoken" & and there are no repercussions. Thank you, Serena Williams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same".

Williams herself claimed that Ramos the umpire has “never taken a game from a man because they said 'thief.' For me it blows my mind. But I'm going to continue to fight for women."

Despite the strong words spoken by King and Williams, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) released a statement in favor of the calls Ramos made - "Carlos Ramos is one of the most experienced and respected umpires in tennis. Mr. Ramos' decisions were in accordance with the relevant rules and were re-affirmed by the US Open's decision to fine Serena Williams for the three offenses”.


Outside Opinions

Others outside the tennis world also gave their opinions, like the cartoon sketch by Mark Knight. Williams is depicted as a large crying baby stomping on court. Osaka is drawn in the background as thin, white and blond. The chair umpire Carlos Ramos is looking down at Osaka saying, “Can you just let her win?”

Double standards and sexism come into play as no male tennis player has ever been depicted the same way in a cartoon. Knight not only mocked the match but also insulted Williams and Osaka’s physical appearances.

Source

Cornet

Williams wasn’t the only female player facing against a chair umpire the 2018 US Open. French pro player Alize Cornet also received a code violation for fixing her top while on court. During a ten-minute break from the match, Cornet went off-court to change her shirt. Upon returning she realized that her shirt was backwards and quickly fixed her top, briefly exposing her sports bra. To Cornet’s surprise, the male chair umpire gave her a warning for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Alize Cornet
Alize Cornet | Source

Double Standard

Cornet's violation occurred despite the fact that the majority of male players change their shirts many times on court without an issue.

In the same tournament, male pro player John Isner changed his shirt eleven times during his three-plus hour match against Juan Martin del Potro. One day later, Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic sat shirtless for several minutes while his opponent stepped away to change his shirt during a quarterfinals match.

Neither were penalized.

The United States Tennis Association (USTA) ultimately responded to Cornet’s violation with regret and “clarified the policy to ensure this will not happen moving forward”. The policy now equally applies to both male and female players. Cornet, in response, said that she appreciated the USTA's apology.

Billie Jean King

These above incidences scratch just the surface of the decades of sexism and inequality pro female players have encountered. Historically up until the 1970’s, women’s tennis was widely regarded as nothing more than a “frilly sideshow”. Male tennis stars were paid under the table and female players were paid nothing.

Slight headway was made when former female pro Billie Jean King won the Italian Open in 1970, [and] her prize was $600. Her male counterpart, Ilie Nastase, [however], was awarded $3,500, nearly six times that.

Two years later, King and Nastase both won the U.S. Open. This time, he received $15,000 more than she did. In response, King threatened to boycott the 1973 US Open, which prompted the tournament to become the first major to award equal prize money to male and female champions.

Things took a major turn on Sept. 20, 1973 when former Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs played against King.

The media titled the match the “Battle of the Sexes” and at the end of the day, King defeated Riggs in three straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

King vs Riggs
King vs Riggs

The Battle of the Sexes match became the most famous tennis match in history. An estimated fifty million people around the world watched it while thirty thousand attended in person.

King’s celebrated win against Riggs helped to legitimize women’s tennis and more specifically “boosted the credibility of women’s participation in major sports.” Forty-five years ago, King instantly became a symbol for women’s equality both on and off the tennis court.

Title IX

King’s Battle of the Sexes win occurred alongside another historic victory for female athletes - Title IX. Before Title IX passed, only 1% of college athletic budgets went to women’s sports programs and in high schools, male athletes outnumbered female athletes 12.5 to 1. Billie Jean King herself testified on behalf of Title IX at Capitol Hill and in 1972 it officially became law.

Title IX resulted in female collegiate level athletic participation increasing “six-fold, from 30,000 in 1977 to more than 180,000 in 2010”.

As of 2012, approximately 40 percent of all interscholastic and intercollegiate sport participants were reported girls and women. “Title IX remains the only law that grants women any kind of equality in America” to this day.

The Looks

Pro female players today also face a sexist stereotype created where certain "physical attributes" are considered necessary by male counterparts. When female players don’t fit this mold, as many don’t, some argue that the players are chastised and belittled for it.

Consider the case of former female pro Marion Bartoli, who after winning the 2013 Wimbledon women's final faced sexist insult by radio presenter John Inverdale. He commented on Bartoli‘s physical appearance by saying she was “never going to be a looker” and then, after public backlash, claimed that any mocking of her looks was done “in a nice way” and that "she is an incredible role model for people who aren't born with all the attributes of natural athletes.”

Bartoli, when asked about Inverdale original comment, responded by saying, “I am not blonde, yes. That is a fact."

Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli
Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli

Another example highlighting a similar problem relates to the catsuit Serena Williams wore at the 2018 French Open. Williams had it personally designed to help prevent blood clots that endangered her health after giving birth to her daughter in 2017.

Despite the health benefits and public praise, the French Tennis Federation banned her from wearing it again and cited the need to respect the game. It was also announced that the Open would be introducing a new, more restrictive dress code moving forward. The Federation president further explained the catsuit ban by saying ‘’I think that sometimes we’ve gone too far.”

Serena Williams
Serena Williams

Strong public backlash erupted shortly after with sexist claims and the argument that Williams outfit only increased fan interest in the French Open. As one reporter put it - “Because Serena Williams is strong and black, her body is seen as a threat, not an asset”.

Bouchard

A case exposing yet again the sexist stereotype is when “svelte and blonde” female pro Eugenie Bouchard was asked to twirl on court at the Australian Open. At the 2015 Australian Open, Eugenie Bouchard was asked by on-court announcer Ian Cohen to “give us a twirl”.

Bouchard was initially taken aback by the request but reluctantly spun around and then covered her face in embarrassment

Criticism quickly towards Cohen arose and “people asking whether male tennis stars could be asked to do twirls on the court.” Bouchard in a post-match interview said, “I'm fine with being asked to twirl if they ask the guys to flex.”

Eugenie Bouchard
Eugenie Bouchard

Raymond Moore

In 2016 former Indian Wells Tournament CEO Raymond Moore publicly commented that the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) was a lucky organization to “ride on the coattails of the men” and that they should “go down every night” on their “knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport”.

Two days later Moore resigned as CEO.

Bottom Line

Women’s professional tennis has overcome significant barriers involving legitimization, equal pay at Grand Slam majors and equal athletic participation. Despite these achievements, however, are ongoing problems concerning stereotyping, double standards and male chauvinism. As previously mentioned, female players are expected fit a specified mold and when they don’t, are frequently criticized and punished for it.

The reality is that professional athletes, regardless of sex, are professional athletes because of their exceptional strength, ability, hardwork, and resilience. It’s not because of looks. When emotions run high or rules are broken, all athletes must be treated equally. It’s time for the tennis world to accept this fact.

In the words of Billie Jean King, “Everyone thinks women should be thrilled when we get crumbs, and I want women to have the cake, the icing and the cherry on top too”.

Poll

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Sources

www-m.cnn.com/2018/09/09/us/serena-williams- sexism-tennis-controversy/index.html?r=https://www.google.com/.

www.espn.com/tennis/story/_/id/24513634/us-open-clarifies-changing-shirt- rule-alize-cornet-penalty.

www.foxsports.com.au/tennis/us-open/us-savages-australias-ignorance-after- controversial-serena-williams-cartoon/news- story/7a154bd522a84d4d51cc9f1019daf679.

www.huffingtonpost.com/peter- dreier/billie-jean-king-and-rema_b_1621359.html.

www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/equal-pay- for-equal-play-what-the-sport-of-tennis-got-right

© 2020 Malia J

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