A Conversation About Sexism in Tennis

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.


Lindsay is an author, a filmmaker, a long-winded blogger, and a huge tennis fan.

8 Responses

  1. Matt Zemek
    Matt Zemek May 26, 2014 at 6:06 pm |

    Terrific conversation, both!

    Thank you!

  2. Karen
    Karen May 26, 2014 at 7:02 pm |

    Great discussion guys. A couple of comments: When BJK and the other 8 women decided to start what has now become the WTA Tour, they had responsibilities. They had bills to pay, maybe children to look after. This was after all their jobs that they were putting on the line. They had no sponsors. Frankly speaking they even had members of their own organisation backing away from them. Today’s players have no clue about what those 9 women did for them. No clue. They accept it as if it is a given. I think it should be required reading for all these young women before they become a member of the WTA Tour to sit some kind of examination just so that they are knowledgeable about how their organisation began. In relation to the 30/30, one thing you forgot to mention was the fact that a certain player’s agent had her pulled from any promotional event about equal pay because sponsors were not amused by what was happening. If you go back and watch the 30/30 movie, you will see it mentioned.

    As regards marketing, when the players themselves think that getting modelling contracts are somehow much better than getting Grand Slam titles it tells you all you need to know. Andrew speaks about the Lost Boys and the ATP Dark Ages, despite the fact that there are so many young talented young women coming up, the WTA also has its Lost Girls. These are the ones in the 25-30 age group who have basically become fillers for the Grand Slams. They earn a pay check and nothing more. My hope has been placed on players in the 19-23 age group. These are the ones who are hungry for success and are not afraid to show it. I am hopeful that this new breed will bring something fresh and different to the women’s Tour that it has not seen since the early 00s.

    Finally, when I used to play tennis, I played in a mixed league at my local tennis club. It is possible to pit men and women to play against each other with the women winning. I am sure that many “Grand Slam” champions from the local tennis club play in mixed leagues and they can tell you that if called upon they will compete with the men at their clubs and beat them. I know I have. Don’t sell the women too short when it comes to competing against the men.

    Finally, one of the things I like to track during matches is the serve speeds of the women and sometimes the men as well. A lot of the times the women are serving faster and harder than some of the top men. The difference in results usually stems from the ball being hit once it comes into play and therein lies the difference. The men will naturally hit a bigger ball then the women, but I am sure that a lot of the women if given the chance would be able to compete.

    1. ST
      ST June 1, 2014 at 1:15 am |

      Karen – I agree with most of what you wrote but think your comments in the last two paragraphs are misguided. At the highest levels of the sport (i.e. at the ATP and WTA tour level) the women just aren’t able to compete with the men on a head-to-head basis. Same with golf, 100 meter dash, marathons, swimming etc. Serena herself said it would be completely non-competitive when asked about facing people on the ATP tour, that it’s just a totally different animal. But that’s ok – that’s not the standard that women’s sports should be held to. No one would expect Floyd Mayweather (a 145 pound boxer generally considered to be the best fighter in the world) to be able to beat a 220 pound heavyweight).

  3. RZ
    RZ May 26, 2014 at 7:20 pm |

    Thanks for posting this conversation!

    One of the issues I see as sexist is pretty easy to correct. Very often, the male players are referred to as “men” but the female players are referred to as “girls” (and most people do this – commentators, players in interview, etc., and both genders). I believe this puts the women on unequal footing as the men because they are perceived as younger, less mature, and therefore less important and less capable. If everyone made an effort to refer to the female players as “women” or “ladies” it would help with the perception.

    Another issue is the prize money outside of the grand slams. That’s where the real discrepancy exists. I understand that a lot of this has to do with sponsorships and perceptions, but it’s something the WTA should work on.

  4. Eric
    Eric May 26, 2014 at 9:53 pm |

    Good points.
    On serving, the real issue is that guys are taller. Even in the men’s game, the big servers are almost always taller (the exception of Roddick). Nobody was expecting Fabrice Santoro to rain down aces all match. If you remove aces and double faults, the WTA and ATP players tend to win roughly the same number of service points, it’s just that the men get a percentage boost from aces, whereas less than a handful of women do. Since the break rate will be higher as service point win percentage drops, that’s why the women’s game has more breaks. If Serena was 6’9”, she’d hit as many aces as Isner and Karlovic.

  5. Max
    Max May 27, 2014 at 1:07 am |

    The WTA needs a good “Remember who you are” talk from either Mufasa or Billie Jean King.

    The upper management should be fired immediately.
    In 2014, marketing is crucial to anyone looking to sell anything and the WTA is simply a joke in that area. From the tournaments’ branding (Premier Mandatory?) to the website ( airbrushed photogalleries and …), it is infuriating. The latest campaign is D-List “celebrities” holding signs. Come on.

    No wonder they don’t have a title sponsor as they just don’t know what to do with them. They give free exposure to Sugarpova while Usana is lucky to get a 2K views video on Youtube. BTW, what is Usana?

    The ATP is building the hype of Dimitrov with hot shots while the WTA is already alienating fans from Bouchard as they overexposed her already with photoshoots. It is a sports organization or a beauty pageant? Hard to tell.

  6. Patrick of La Verne
    Patrick of La Verne May 27, 2014 at 5:55 pm |

    The thing that most annoys me about the sexism argument is that so many men flatly assert that the the men’s game is “better” and “more interesting” (and hence deserving of greater rewards) and so on, without providing any evidence that this is so. When possible I ask them if they find men’s gymnastics “better” and “more interesting than women’s gymnastics? How about men’s figure skating? Most people, I believe would say that in the case of those sports the ‘women’s game’ is more interesting – and more highly promoted in the media – than the men’s. Notwithstanding the fact that the men are physically faster, stronger, and can jump higher (in figure skating).

    I think the best of three/best of five argument is silly because I don’t think any players should be playing best of five at the slams. Does the World Series consist of 14-inning games? Does the Super Bowl consist of six quarters? How about the NBA finals? Is the Masters 108 holes? In no other well-run sport that I can think of are do “playoffs” alter the essential length of the game. They do in boxing (12 and 15-round championship fights) if anyone really wants to take the same side of an argument as the geniuses who run boxing.

    There are two reasons, IMO, that women double fault more than men. In the first place the server is, on average, much shorter, making the act of getting any effective serve in more difficult, so that there would always be more double faults in the women’s game even, if all other variables were controlled. Today I watched Dr Ivo, 6’10″ and Sara Errani, 5′ 4″ both doing their best to serve effectively. Who do you think served better, and why? Does Ivo have better hand-eye coordination than Sara? I would think, if anything, that the reverse is probably true.

    Nowadays the best male servers range probably from 6’3″ to 6’10″; the best female servers from 5’9″ to 6′ 2″. The midpoint of the two ranges are 6′ 6 1/2″ to 5′ 11 1/2″ — a difference of seven inches. And that’s not even allowing for the accompanying greater distance in arm-length. Simple geometry explains why men are able to serve more both more powerfully and more accurately than women.

    The corollary of that geometry is that it is MUCH easier for good women players to attack the average female serve than it it is for good men players. Accordingly, women have to take extra care, particularly with their second serve, or see it smashed for a return winner. And if they cut it too close, bingo, you’ve got a double fault. Personally, I find the fact that service games are far from automatic in women’s tennis a big advantage over men’s tennis. I can think of few things more stultifying than a five set match between Karlovic and Isner.

    Finally, there was a very illuminating comment on the Tennis Channel today. With a game or two left in the Keys-Errani match, the TC stat man gave the announcers a note saying that Madison Keys’ average ground-stroke speed during the match – returning Errani’s slowballs for the most part – was 77 MPH.

    The LEADER among men in ground stroke speed through one round in this tournament, was Novak Djokovic. Do you know what his average ground stroke speed was in the first round? 76 mph.

    That’s incredible.

    Serena, if anyone is interested – was third among the women with, IIRC, 72 or 73 mph, I believe it was. Like Keys, she hit her groundstrokes harder, on average, than all but a couple of the men. I might be mistaken but I believe the graphic showed that Cibulkova was second among the women.

    Watching the men play it has often seemed to me me that they hit a lot of ground-strokes at less than full strength, perhaps because they do more angling for position. I was gratified to learn, that at least at one round at one tournament, my supposition was proved correct.

  7. Ken
    Ken May 29, 2014 at 10:11 pm |

    I think Women’s tennis will be boosted in the next evolution of their style of play – specifically I think it’ll look less amateurish compared to the men when more players hold serve reliably and more players wield great forehands. To me often most players look like feeble servers who rely on two-handed backhands to keep from spraying errors; whoever makes fewest errors win. The women’s game could use more shotmakers. The mens game seems to be arrayed with a historically high number of great shotmakers so the womens style will look inferior in comparison.

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