Andrew Burton joined me for a long and winding conversation about what is always a divisive topic: sexism in the tennis world. We exchanged a few e-mails over the past month on the topic, and you can read them all below. It’s a long read, so I’ll spare you from a rambling intro.
Andrew Burton: So, Lindsay, two things to start off with. First, for me, there’s no reason not to think of the best tennis players in the world as just that – the best tennis players. Because of obvious bio mechanical differences, Serena Williams couldn’t win a tennis match against, say, David Goffin. Serena Williams is a much better tennis player than David Goffin.
The quality of any tennis player can’t be measured in how much weight she can bench press, or what his time is for the 40 meter dash. Tennis skill, shot selection, mental toughness, competitive spirit, ability to adapt to an opponent or match situation – all of these things, to me, matter much more. I also, FWIW, think tennis is a genuinely three dimensional sport: you move from side to side, forwards and backwards, and play the ball anywhere between an inch off the ground and seven feet off the ground. I can’t, for the life of me, see why men or women should naturally hit very different shots to each other. I think they do hit slightly different shots because of biomechanics, but I don’t think this creates two different sports.
Second, sexism exists – as background noise, and sometimes shouting in your face (for example, in some tennis journalists’ Twitter feed). I’m a 54 year old white professional English man. I’ve read some of the recent “Check Your Privilege” discussion online with some interest. Privilege exists – Jon Scalzi’s “degree of difficulty” post a couple of years back is one of the best discussions on the topic I’ve read.
Beginning from when I first became aware of sexism – possibly my late teens – I’ve tried very hard not to act or write in a sexist way, by omission or commission. Trying, of course, doesn’t mean always succeeding. But the attempt continues to be made in good faith.
Bring the two ideas together, I’d like to think women and men can talk about tennis in general, the current state of the ATP and WTA and where they’re going, and topics like the use of grunting or the place in tennis history of the Williams sisters without their being some kind of Godwin’s Law that sooner or later the conversation will break down because of the shadow of sexism.
What do you think?
Lindsay Gibbs: Thanks so much for getting this conversation started, Andrew. I think it’s vitally important to keep having nuanced conversations about sexism in tennis. Sexism is still everywhere in the media (particularly sports media), but with tennis being one of the few sports that puts men and women on the same stage throughout the year, the examples are often rather blatant.
First, I completely agree with you that tennis is tennis. The sport is much more intricate than serve speeds and “see ball, hit ball.” Just because the women and men are in different “weight classes” (as I like to refer to it), doesn’t mean they’re not playing the same sport.
Obviously there are differences with their bodies. To be frank, women have boobs and hips, men don’t. Men are naturally much stronger than women, especially in their upper bodies. These things that aren’t going to change. In my opinion, the part of the game that these physiological differences impact the most is the serve. In tennis, clearly, the serve is very important. Serving is much easier for men than women, while women are typically better returners. This leads there to be more frequent breaks in the women’s game, which is widely ridiculed.
I also agree with you that, ideally, everyone should be able to discuss wide-ranging topics of men and women tennis players without everyone crying “SEXISM” anytime anyone says something negative about the WTA or positive about the ATP. However, we don’t live in a perfect world, and many people–and I will include myself in this–do get defensive because of just how prevalent and accepted the sexism is. For this conversation, I promise to be open minded and not assume the worst.
A couple of years ago I wrote a very long essay on sexism, both in the tennis media and the media in general. It’s still up over at 10sWorld (though the site is undergoing changes and so the formatting isn’t ideal). Gilles Simon’s rant against equal prize money at Wimbledon 2012 was the catalyst for the piece, but I honed in on one statement that Simon made that stuck out to me. When talking with reporters and defending his words, he said, “But you media are doing exactly the same. If I take the newspaper, I will see four pages on the men and one on the women, so that’s what you are saying…You said that women have no No. 1, that men’s tennis was amazing. You said it.” (Simon also echoed that sentiment this year.)
While I personally hated Simon’s comments about equal prize money, and completely disagreed when he said that men’s tennis was more “interesting” like it was a fact, I loved that he turned it around on the media too. Because it’s true, he’s right. I so often see journalists and television broadcasters marginalize the women’s game by not showing it (and talking about it condescendingly when they do), and then they claim that the reason they can’t talk about the women’s game more is because there aren’t more fans. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. How are there supposed to be more fans if the sport isn’t showcased and respected by the people covering it?
Obviously, most women’s sports have it way worse than tennis. Thanks to Billie Jean King’s vision, the WTA is currently the best organization for female athletes on the planet. However, that doesn’t mean the fight is over.
I’ve steered a bit off course, but I think it’s important to lay the foundation of the discussion by noting both the inherent differences in the men’s and women’s game and the media bias before going on. What are your thoughts on this?
Burton: Lindsay, in terms of intrinsic differences, the only two that have any meaning for me are strength and speed. I don’t see any reason that women and men should think or feel differently about playing tennis. That’s why I think on-court coaching is bad for the WTA – it makes it look as though a top class athlete can’t decide on the right approach or adjustment to make without help, often from a male coach. Ugh.
You mentioned the serve. I’m not sure why it should be easier for male athletes to serve than females. If you look at just mph or spin on the ball, then the ATP top speed will be greater than the WTA, sure. But kick, flat serve, slice: placement, and variation – surely a top WTA player should have all of these at her disposal? And hitting a third of your second serves out? That seems nuts to me at the very top level of the sport, but in recent years I’ve seen top WTA players do this (see Sharapova in last week’s Madrid final). Missing your second serve frequently is a mental strength issue: Billie Jean King (“pressure is a privilege”) would have something salty to say.
Then there’s foot speed. The average top male is going to be just a bit quicker than his female counterpart – and I think that matters in the dimensions of a tennis court, in a subtle way. I think point construction has become different in the ATP, because it’s harder to hit through your opponent – the men track the ball down defensively slightly better than the women do. So the ATP game showcases a bit more spin and variety, whereas Monica Seles showed the future of the WTA game – flat groundies (and returns) rule!
But it’s not just the serve and groundies that are different – it’s the use of the whole court. Both versions of tennis are primarily baseline, but the top ATP players tend to be much more confident moving forward then hitting volleys and overheads than the best of the WTA. And this is a new thing – I don’t think it was true, for example in the 1990s.
I was stunned, at Indian Wells a few years ago, to see Caroline Wozniacki, then world no. 2, butcher a floating BH volley. Her footwork was all over the place, and it was evident that she didn’t know, technically, how to play the shot.
When a WTA player does make a successful volley, this is sometimes actually underlined by the TV commentators – which seems awfully condescending to me. So that’s a bridge to the second part of your – the media.
I think the equal pay argument has been accepted, for the most part, by the tennis community (Gilles Simon and Sergei Stakhovsky aside). I think it reflects a general societal consensus that women athletes merit the same regard as men athletes do. That means (to me) televising and reporting on WTA and ATP matches in the same spirit – treating them as athletic contests with equal meaning. Why don’t newspapers and broadcasters do this? I can think of a number of reasons – some legitimate, some not.
I think the last five years have been a historically strong moment for the ATP, less so for the WTA. Currently, the WTA has a dominant player – Serena Williams – who’s had injury issues, but happily overcome them in the last 18 months. The ATP has had the fabled Big 4. In the medium to long term, though, advantage WTA. They have a much younger next tier, plus rising stars. The ATP has a group of Lost Boys, and a Dark Age Is Coming (couldn’t resist it). When the WTA had its own historic moment in the early 2000s – chronicled by Jon Wertheim in Venus Envy – the WTA version of the game was more attractive to broadcasters.
There are also illegitimate reasons. There’s basic residual sexism – present more in an older generation of writers and a broadcasters (not a few Brits) – that applies a double standard to behavior. And then there’s marketing. Here, I think, the WTA has done itself no favors with “Strong Is Beautiful.” The top WTA players are fantastic athletes, but they’re marketed by their own professional association for looks as well as their competitive abilities.
To sum up, women and men will never play exactly the same tennis, but our focus should always be on the tennis they actually play. How does that sound to you?
Gibbs: I completely agree with you in regards to WTA on-court coaching, Andrew. I’m certainly not against tennis exploring ways to add television-friendly entertainment to the matches–perhaps they should require the coaches to speak to the media during set breaks, or something–but if on-court coaching isn’t in the majors, it shouldn’t be on the regular tour.
One of the my favorite things about tennis is in the fact that once you’re out there, you have to figure it out on your own. It’s frustrating that the WTA has this rule in place, and in my opinion it coincides with one of your later points: When it comes to marketing, the WTA is a bit clueless and desperate. I think this is because female athletes in general are seen as second-class citizens, the media (sports or not) never knows how to promote women properly, and because the WTA has gone through a few years of flux. The promoters of the sport don’t really have any great models to follow, so they are blazing their own trail. And in tough times, they rely on beauty more than athletics, celebrity more than stability, and gimmicks such as on-court coaching more than talent.
On one hand, it’s hard to blame them. Unfortunately, we live in a world where women’s sports are still a hard sell. Every time women take the court, they seem to not only be playing for the win in that match, but for the legitimacy of the organization as a whole. Too often it feels like the media is counting the strikes against the WTA. I’m all for calling out poor performances and holding players accountable–that’s good for the sport–but it so often turns into bashing and mocking. It’s pretty infuriating.
Billie Jean King said something in Toronto last year that really stuck with me. She talked about how near-sighted the vision is for women’s sports. For men’s sports, people are often willing to invest a lot of of money and accept a loss in the short term. Women’s sports are always on a tight leash.
I think it comes down to what we were saying before, that you have to accept the differences between men’s and women’s tennis in order to respect and appreciate both. I do disagree with you a bit on the differences in serving. I think women are at a much starker disadvantage with the serve, and therefore have to be more aggressive with the second serve since the women are also more effective returners. (I’m not saying that there’s not room for improvement, merely trying to break down the difficulties.) However, we’re on the same page in regards to seeing them as separate but equal entities under the greater tennis umbrella. (On that note, I highly recommend this article, “Celebrating Difference Between Men’s and Women’s Tennis” by Craig O’Shannessy.)
The good news is that women’s tennis isn’t going anywhere. It’s the biggest women’s sports organization in the world, and it’s lucrative for all involved. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not necessary to change the conversation surrounding the WTA so that it can continue to grow.
Do you agree with that Andrew? And if you had the power to change the way the WTA was marketed and written about, how would you go about it?
Burton: You mean, if I were Queen for a Day – er, King for a Day – what might I do?
[Jafar type laugh] Phenomenal cosmic powers! The universe is mine to command! To control!
From what I’ve said before – you can guess what my main thrust would be – market and report on the players as athletes above all. That doesn’t mean there can’t be human interest stories – Caroline Wozniacki’s split with Rory McIlroy is an interesting sports story, for example, and they’re both photogenic and marketable – but if the fluff gets in the way of the main message, which is that these players are top class sports stars, I think you do the cause of women in sport a disservice.
I can’t tell you how much I hated the WTA campaign in which the top players – Jankovic, Ivanovic, Venus WIlliams – got a phone call and changed into super-heroes. “Looking For A Hero” was the slogan. What a disaster. The current “Strong Is Beautiful” campaign, to me, also sends completely the wrong message. I understand that society does have a double standard about looks vs substance for top flight women, not just in sports. But why would your professional organization reinforce, rather than work against this?
I don’t watch much golf, but I remember the US PGA ran a campaign with the slogan “These Guys Are Good.” If I’m marketing tennis, that’s what I’d look to first – great rallies, great shots, great drama, triumph and disaster. Maybe “Are You Ready For This?”
I don’t think there’s an overnight fix for the way things get reported, either in print or on TV. Some of the the more antediluvian attitudes, particularly in print, are generational. Tennis broadcasting is another area where much of the lead commentary is done by men – are there some superb lead women commentators out there with the enthusiasm and knowledge of a Robbie Koenig, for example? Bring them on!
I completely agree with you that women’s tennis isn’t going away – and in the medium term (3-5 years) the action at the top of the womens’ game may well be more compelling than the ATP version. How about you? Are you stoked for the future of the womens’ game – and what would you do, given awesome power to use wisely, to increase the reach of one of our favorite sports?
Gibbs: I’m completely stoked about the future of the women’s game, Andrew. Completely. Stoked. I definitely believe that all of this goes in cycles, and that with the recent domination of the Big Four, we forget that a little over a decade ago the women were carrying the game. This classic Rick Reilly article from 2001 does a great job of breaking down the popularity of the women’s game at the time, and how ridiculous it was that they were still being paid less at the French and Wimbledon.
The main thing that I’ve always wished and will continue to wish is that the WTA would stand up for themselves more. I know that I understand only a fraction of the economics and contracts that go into the men’s and women’s tours, but it so often feels like the WTA, both the players and the organization, is willing to accept less. Less TV coverage, less media coverage, less respect…just less in general.
I know it’s not fair to expect the players–who already have enough to deal with just being pro athletes–to fight for themselves and understand the bigger picture, but I also feel that the WTA was built on the backs of women who were willing to push the envelope and fight for justice and respect. These days, thanks to the hard work by the previous generation, things are good enough to be taken for granted.
I remember a Maria Sharapova quote in the powerful 30-for-30 film on Venus Williams and equal pay. In referring to the fact that so many say that women shouldn’t get equal pay in Slams because they don’t play best-of-five, she pointed out that the women have repeatedly offered to pay best-of-five if that’s what it takes. However, it’s the tournaments and the sponsors and tradition that keeps that from happening. So why should the women then be punished? It’s more self-fulfilling prophecy: “The women will deserve equal pay when they play best-of-five, but we won’t allow them to play best-of-five.”
I’ve heard so many WTA players answer apathetically when asked about equal prize money or television coverage. Some have even said they believe that men’s tennis is more interesting. It’s frustrating, because whether they admit it or not, they are listening to the media as well and internalizing the things that are being said.
Like you, I wish that they could be promoted as athletes first, and that was enough. I wish that there was equal and respectful coverage of both sports. I wish that there weren’t so many comparisons between the two, and that the men’s game wasn’t the default–when we have conversations about court speed or scheduling or even GOAT, it’s always through the lens of the men’s game. The women are, as always, an afterthought.
I know we have it relatively good in tennis, but I still want it to be better.
So, I guess, if I had powers, I’d want to make the WTA players more educated about the history of the tour and the current business situation. I’d have Stacey Allaster and all of the WTA officials believe in their product enough to passionately fight for better contracts with tournaments and televisions, and to never accept anything as pitiful as tournaments like the Sony Open offer. And I’d have the women promoted for talent more than looks.
I’m not sure if I answered your question or my question or any question really, but it feels good to rant.
This feels like a good place to stop for now. I hope that we get some feedback from this and can continue the exchange at another time. It’s not a simple one, and it’s not one that can be concluded in a few thousand words. I think the most important thing we can do is to just keep the conversation going.