Picture this scene. It’s January 10th, a couple of days before the Australian Open. Like all good tennis fans, I am pretending to work; in reality, I am lounging about taking the piss out of draw conspiracy theories and trying to figure out who the hell Star Head Candle is and why I’ve never heard of her before. I am deeply happy.
Then a friend links to Christopher Clarey’s 2014 tennis wish list piece on Twitter and says he agrees with most of it. I like a lot of Clarey’s stuff, so I click.
Boy, I wish I hadn’t. I really didn’t need to read any more casual, unthinking sexism by (mostly but not exclusively) male journalists.
I objected vociferously on Twitter, as one does. The friend who linked to the piece originally then responded with, “Sorry you found this provocative. I think Clarey’s generally the best tennis journalist writing in English.”
Provocative? I found it bad and enraging, not provocative. When I want provocative, I read Bodo. But it was an interesting choice of word in response to anger.
I won’t bother arguing with the second claim. Clarey could be the reincarnation of Jane Austen, and I’d still say this particular piece was bad.
Why? Among other, smaller things, much of Clarey’s piece can be summed up as, “Women – you’re doing everything wrong.”
You’re making too much noise. Wait, your leadership isn’t making ENOUGH noise. You’re not playing well enough. Wait, at least one of you is playing TOO well. Vaidisova isn’t doing what we want: how dare she?! And worst of all, you pesky women are ruining the essence of tennis with your silly on-court coaching.
Can I just say how much I loathe this reactionary “essence of tennis” bollocks? It’s lazy romanticism, nostalgia, an endless harking back to the good old days, a promotion of one’s favourite sport with little basis in reason. It’s very problematic when you consider exactly what the “good old days” were. And apart from anything, it’s just fucking tiresome to read it so frequently. There are sensible objections to on-court coaching. This nonsense isn’t one of them.
Returning to Vaidisova for a moment, the obsession with a potential comeback for her genuinely creeps me out. Anecdotally, it appears to be more of a male wish than a female one, but it’s pretty creepy no matter who is doing the wishing. Vaidisova, for whatever reason, decided that tennis wasn’t for her and she didn’t want to play. That is her decision, and I wish people would respect it and her ability to make her own choices, and leave her the fuck alone. That doesn’t mean tennis should forget her, but the constant pressuring for a comeback is bizarre. Tennis didn’t make her happy years ago. Why on earth does anyone think it would now? Why do people think their desire to see Vaidisova should trump her decision to leave tennis? It’s the height of entitlement, and the specific gender dynamic of a middle-aged man desperately wanting to see a young woman do what he wants is just plain weird.
There is so much wrong with Clarey’s grunting comments that I am not sure where to start.
First, according to this piece, he is plain wrong about how the hindrance rule can be used.
Second, his “research” about WTA grunting driving fans out of the game and away from TV is entirely anecdotal, and I’m not sure the numbers that we have (as piecemeal and limited as they are) back his opinions up. A recent Grand Slam final featuring two of the WTA grunters mentioned by Clarey didn’t do so badly in the US TV ratings, after all. I’m also very dubious about his ability to collect a genuine range of opinion, given some of the discussion questions his paper has previously put out on this subject.
Third, claims such as Azarenka possibly “playing and wailing” until she is 34 are exaggerated, and a clear appeal to emotion. If we have to have this endless media grunting talk, then please can we have a bit less of the, “But I hate it!”, and a bit more objectivity?
Fourth, Clarey states that the grunting is too often used to intimidate and destabilize. I won’t argue with this, except to say that there is plenty of evidence to suggest other, equally likely interpretations are possible. I’d also like to make the point that many things players do on both tours could be interpreted as done to intimidate and destabilize – tempo control, fist pumps, death stares, changeover bumps, racquet smashes, twirling and tappings, trash-talking before matches. Where’s the outrage about those? Is the grunting talk really about fair play – or is it more about some people not liking women making what is deemed to be “too much” noise when playing sport, and trying to find ways to justify their fundamentally irrational opinions?
Moving to a couple of the big, oft-discussed game issues – surface speed, pay for lower ranked players – well, Clarey filters those straight through the ATP and doesn’t mention the WTA at all. While it’s obvious that Clarey’s first love is the ATP – and there is nothing wrong with that – I still expect better coverage from one of the most respected tennis journalists around. Too many journalists talk about “the game” when they mean “the ATP game.” I do it myself. It’s easy to do. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aware of what we’re doing, or that we shouldn’t try to change those habits. I’ve seen maybe two pieces in two years that thoughtfully consider the effects of surface speed on the WTA game. The only remotely objective stats I’ve seen about surface speed (Jeff Sackmann’s) are limited to the ATP. How can we even begin to have a genuine, thorough debate about court speed and what is good for the game while ignoring and discounting half of the sport?
As for the question of pay, there appears to be even less money around at the lower levels of the WTA game, which makes the issue possibly even more acute for the WTA. But, what a surprise – while Clarey tries to be general, it’s clear from his comment about Challengers that his focus, once again, is the way that the issue affects the ATP.
If all these things weren’t part of the same old pattern, it might be possible to overlook them. This is an opinion piece, after all; and I certainly don’t think that the WTA should be immune from criticism.
But they are, unfortunately, part of a pattern. From Barry Flatman, Neil Harman and Richard Evans, through to Bruce Jenkins, Jon Wertheim and now Christopher Clarey (note: this is not an exhaustive list), English and American male tennis journalists and commentators are revealing their subconscious biases in their more thoughtless moments, on Twitter or in quickly-written “fun” pieces like this. And you know what? I’m sick of it.
Grant me just one wish for the season ahead: that we could leave these biases behind once and for all.
Jewell loves comment sections – yes, really – and a good passing shot or ten. She is addicted to strong tea, long walks in the rain, and Georgette Heyer novels.