Deconstructing a Tennis Wish List

By Jewell

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. 

26 Responses

  1. Phaura Reinz
    Phaura Reinz January 12, 2014 at 11:47 am |

    I love this Jewell. Hoping Clarey oculd read this and for once in 2014 change his ways. Hoping more of this Jewell in the future.

  2. Jeff
    Jeff January 12, 2014 at 12:16 pm |

    Thanks for mentioning my surface speed numbers. The WTA is horrible about keeping and publishing stats. I can only calculate court speed if I have aces and 1st serve points won for all tour-level matches, and the WTA doesn’t come anywhere close to making those available.

    However, that’s just one of the omissions that the Match Charting Project is trying to rectify. We need all the help we can get–with both ATP and WTA matches. It’d be great if you pitched in:

    1. Jewell
      Jewell January 12, 2014 at 3:25 pm |

      Hi Jeff,

      Thanks for clarifying that. I will try and give charting a go but unfortunately I’m allergic to spreadsheets. 🙂

      I’m not actually surprised the WTA itself contributes to the lack of coverage for women’s tennis in this sort of debate, given how, for example, their marketing efforts contribute to the objectification of their players.

      I realise it didn’t sound like it here, but I’m a big fan of your court speed stats and frequently try to link them when yet another interminable, subjective debate about surface speed starts up. They’re the only remotely objective stats I know of, and I think they’re incredibly valuable.

  3. Ana
    Ana January 12, 2014 at 12:27 pm |

    This is a lovely rant. Thank you, Jewell.

  4. BadToss
    BadToss January 12, 2014 at 1:22 pm |

    Right on, Jewell!

  5. Patrick of La Verne
    Patrick of La Verne January 12, 2014 at 1:46 pm |

    Great letter, Jewell.

    But while I agree with just about everything you wrote,in Mr Clarey’s defense it *is* a wish list, not a pronunciamento.

    I hardly notice the grunting/shrieking myself (and the two most cacophonous noisemakers,to my ear, are Schiavone and Sara la Divina, not Vika and Sharapova) but is there anyone who is in favor of it? Would “you” be unhappy to see the volume toned down? Would anyone?

    Is there anyone who wouldn’t like to see someone of either sex make a grand slam run?

    Is there any serious tennis fan who doesn’t think that there is something out of whack when a grand slam win is worth around $2.5 million while win at a WTA international event is worth $40,000?

    In short, while his tone leaves a great deal to be desired at times, I think that there are a lot worse offenders in sports journalism on this score.

    I agree with you that he sometimes writes about men’s concerns as if they were the only gender out there playing. But not a day goes by that I don’t see someone that should know better write confidently (but carelessly) in a blog or comments section that Pete Sampras won more Wimbledons than anyone else, or that Roger Federer hold the all time record for most weeks spent at #1, when the fact is that Navratilova holds the first record and Graf the second. So, Mr Clarey is hardly alone in that regard either. It’s an unfortunate shorthand that will probably survive another decade or two.

    1. Jewell
      Jewell January 12, 2014 at 3:17 pm |

      Hi Patrick! Yes, there many worse offenders. I rant about lots of them on my Twitter account. 🙂

      Re the unfortunate shorthand – you know what, I’ve done the same thing myself, plenty of times. It’s easy to do. But it says something, and I try not to do it – because change will never happen if we don’t start making it happen.

  6. Andrew Burton
    Andrew Burton January 12, 2014 at 1:56 pm |

    Sticking my hand up as the friend Jewell mentions who kicked this whole thing off.

    And I (politely) dissent with Jewell’s characterization of Clarey’s interest in and characterization of the importance of and sympathy for the WTA game. Given that this has been published in the Changeover as a blog post, I hope the Changeover has contacted Christopher Clarey and given him the opportunity to respond.

    In any conversation I have with people I’ll continue to examine myself for unconscious or subconscious sexism, racism, or any other bias. I do honestly think one can disagree over an issue without bias being the underlying cause, but YMMV.

    1. Jewell
      Jewell January 12, 2014 at 4:37 pm |

      “In any conversation I have with people I’ll continue to examine myself for unconscious or subconscious sexism, racism, or any other bias.”

      I’d like to think I do, too, but sometimes we’re not so good at checking ourselves. Kind of like tennis fan bias – I think I’m being as fair as possible when it comes to my favourites and non-favourites, but often, months after, I’ll be thinking about it a bit and realise that actually, bitterness at results or some other kind of bias was fundamentally colouring my view of an issue. And sometimes, I need someone outside to tell me, painful though it is to hear, that I’m being biased.

      It could be I’m reading stuff into Clarey’s piece that isn’t there; but I’ve learned to trust my instincts when something sets my radar off.

      I do think that the objection to grunting as poor sportsmanship is worth taking seriously as a subject of discussion; but when Clarey later (see tweet announcing the piece) characterises the grunting portion of his wish list as wanting “peace and quiet”, I start to think that perhaps gamesmanship isn’t really one of the major objections after all.

  7. Kate
    Kate January 12, 2014 at 2:38 pm |

    So, I read Clarey’s article and I found nothing wrong with it. While you bring up some valid points about the court surface, I think the rest of your objections to his writing are a bit unfounded.
    Clarey certainly doesn’t seem like a sexist. He might like the ATP more than the WTA but that’s his right as a human. I am a female but I prefer the ATP, and there is nothing wrong with that.

    Anyway, after reading your piece I feel a bit…. weird. I just can’t imagine reading Clarey’s article and having the same reaction as a feminist, so I want to sincerely ask you and other feminists why you feel the way you do.

    Maybe I’m not a feminist because I’ve never personally witnessed sexism. I really don’t know. Please don’t think my comment/question is an attack. I’m open-minded and I truly want you to explain your reasoning so I can understand your perspective.

    1. Jewell
      Jewell January 12, 2014 at 4:46 pm |

      I thought I had explained my reasoning in the post? Maybe I didn’t do it well enough.

      And for the record, I totally agree there is nothing wrong with preferring the ATP. There have been times when I’ve preferred it, too.

      I don’t think there is any one ideal feminism, either. 🙂

      1. Kate
        Kate January 12, 2014 at 9:05 pm |

        Sorry, Jewell. I should have been more specific. I was curious about your perspective and personal history with feminism/sexism, not your opinion on the article. You definitely made that opinion clear! 🙂

        1. Jewell
          Jewell January 13, 2014 at 1:46 pm |

          I’m not sure I can explain, Kate. From experiences to friends’ experience to statistics and reading, academic and otherwise, it’s one conclusion I’ve drawn. I don’t think I can add anything to what AmyLu and Ana have said generally.

          Tennis-wise, Gilles Simon sparking off the equal-prize-money debate was probably a watershed moment for me. I saw so much misogyny and sexism in player and fan comments over that. I think it sharpened perception everywhere.

          There’s a good example of what I’m talking about re Clarey on his Twitter today. I quote:

          “Consecutive Grand Slam singles tournaments:
          1) #Federer 57
          2) Ferreira 56
          3) Edberg 54

          This would be fine. Except that Ai Sugiyama has more than any of them. Now if Clarey wants to focus on the ATP, that’s fine by me. It’s clearly what he cares most about. But the way he presented this information says “Only men count”.

          I wonder how much this sort of thing goes on to shape other people’s perceptions of the WTA as inferior, subconsciously.

          When this was brought was to his attention, he replied with Good point, but he didn’t change his original tweet, or RT the point made.

    2. Ana
      Ana January 12, 2014 at 4:47 pm |

      Although I’m replying to Kate here, what I have to say touches on comments by Jewell and Andrew as well. Kate, without wanting to be argumentative, I have to say that I simply don’t know how it’s possible for you to have “never personally witnessed sexism.” Perhaps this has something to do with how you’re defining the term itself? Maybe you mean that you, personally, have never been discriminated against on the basis of your sex?

      One of the problems I have with defining sexism as *bias*, as Jewell does at the end of the post and Andrew does in his comment, is that this puts too much emphasis on the individual & not enough on the culture of which he/she is a part–and by which he/she is inevitably influenced. That’s why I prefer understandings of sexism (and racism, for that matter) that don’t focus on personal prejudices but, rather, on social, political, & cultural forces & structures. One can be a bit gender-blind without being *biased*, per se. One can be affected by (and participate in) cultural sexism without being a “sexist.”

      The trouble with calling people out on their biases is that it can make the “accused” feel defensive & resistant to listening to a different perspective. But we all have blind-spots, especially when it comes to understanding experiences unlike our own. So, Andrew, you’re of course welcome to disagree on the issues & arguments, finding Clarey persuasive where Jewell finds him lacking. But I think it’d be unwise for anyone to suggest (and I’m not saying you are) that what Jewell sees or hears isn’t there–instead, consider that her eyes and ears may be more attuned to the patterns she’s identified.

      For more on related matters (including some basic definitions of sexism & examples from the tennis world), see my 2012 piece:

    3. AmyLu
      AmyLu January 12, 2014 at 5:19 pm |

      I am a sociologist, so not surprisingly I agree very strongly with Ana on the importance of social structures and cultural forces with regard to the “isms,” like racism and sexism.

      At any rate, if you are interested in learning more on how culture and structure can lead to sexism/racism there’s some really neat work by Barbara Reskin that demonstrates quite a lot of discrimination that occurs in the workplace is not due to deep-seated prejudice or a strong dislike of certain groups. Rather, it’s often due to unconscious desires and preferences that most people don’t even realize they have.

      I really appreciate this piece from Jewell because I think it points to how often many of us probably do/say things, without really examining what message our words are sending. For example, I’ve noticed that I often refer to men’s college basketball as “college basketball” and women’s college basketball as “women’s college basketball.” The message I’m sending is that college basketball solely refers to men, and if I want to discuss women’s basketball, I need to add a qualifier in front of it. Implicitly I am saying basketball is male. So I’ve tried to be cognizant of this fact and be more aware of the words I use. And, I think many discussions on tennis fall into this same pattern. Tennis is often implicitly understood to refer to the ATP (and that is definitely the message I received from Clarey’s framing of pay and surface speed). And, more often than not, when the WTA is discussed, “women’s tennis” is used. As a fun exercise, I tried googling “most grand slams in tennis.” The first link that appeared? A list of grand slam men’s single champions. If you google, “who has won the most grand slams in tennis,” the news articles that appear are all related to male tennis players. When I did it, the first link was about Nadal (which is funny since he definitely has not won the most slams among male players) and the second two links were articles about Federer. It may seem like all of this is not very meaningful, but these are messages that are sent over and over. And these messages are often internalized.

      I could go on and on, but I realized I’ve already gone on quite a bit so I’ll spare all of you. 🙂

      At any rate, thanks Jewell for writing such a thought-provoking piece, and thanks Kate for the question. It’s led to a really lively discussion that I’ve enjoyed.

      1. Kate
        Kate January 12, 2014 at 9:03 pm |

        1. Thank you all SO much for being so respectful! It can be so hard to discuss these types of sensitive topics with civility!

        2. I think you have some really good points, but I also think it’s important to recognize that there are plenty of other situations where women are automatically deemed superior (so to speak). A parallel to your college basketball example is modeling. We have “models” and we then have “male models”.

        I think one reason why I have always been reluctant to hop on the feminism wagon is that I think men and women really are perceived as equal on BALANCE. Yes, men are generally thought of first when it comes to athletics, but they are also typically more genetically gifted athletically. On the other hand, we women are usually thought of first when it comes to other wonderful things like being a parent/an artist/a chef/an author/a dancer/a historian. I could go on, but I think you get the point! 🙂

        1. AmyLu
          AmyLu January 12, 2014 at 9:33 pm |

          You are completely right that there are many examples where society implicitly assumes “female” (and model is a great example). My personal stance is that I wish society didn’t socialize with regard to such a rigid gendered worldview (and I certainly am guilty of making gendered assumptions all the time). The Guess Who? videos from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media are great examples of how quickly children pick up on gender socialization:

          The reason why I dislike gendering so much is that more often than not the roles that we gender are not valued the same. And, those who deviate from expected gender roles can often face quite a bit in the way of censure and consequences. In many instances, males are viewed more harshly for deviating, and I would argue that’s because they are often deviating toward roles that are viewed as “lesser.”

          Thanks again for starting the chat — it’s been a fun one on which to go back and forth.

  8. Kate
    Kate January 12, 2014 at 4:12 pm |

    Uhh… Is there a reason why my comment was censored?

    1. Lindsay
      Lindsay January 12, 2014 at 4:17 pm |

      All comments by first-time commenters go to moderation, Kate. Just helps us avoid the blog being taken over by spammers, since we don’t have a full-time moderator.

      1. Kate
        Kate January 12, 2014 at 9:10 pm |

        Oops! I got kinda offended when I saw that other comments appeared and mine hadn’t! My bad!

  9. Andrew Burton
    Andrew Burton January 12, 2014 at 7:04 pm |

    Apart from anything else, I think it’s worth talking about the application of the hindrance rule. Jewell links to a piece which discusses the rule here:

    The text of the rule says:

    If a player is hindered in playing the point by a deliberate act of the opponent(s) the player shall win the point.

    However, the point shall be replayed if a player is hindered in playing the point by either an unintentional act of the opponent(s), or something outside the player’s own control (not including a permanent fixture).

    Application of the rule by the umpire depends on two things: is a player hindered, and is the act deliberate. The blog’s author then says “Now that I’ve discuss[ed] what hindrance is, I need to address why grunting is not. Hindrance exists because a player cannot act as they please with an intent to distract their opponent. Any noise which BEGINS when the ball is in  the opponent’s court can be treated as hindrance; a grunt begins when a player is paying their own shot.

    An umpire cannot rule if an extended grunt hindered a player in any way because, unlike the examples above, it is not an objective case.”

    I’m quite unpersuaded by this assertion. Umpires can, and do, make judgement calls all the time – for example, on whether a player made a challenge in a timely manner. There’s nothing whatsoever in the hindrance rule which says that the hindering act has to take place when the ball is in a player’s court: the rule only requires that (in the umpire’s judgement) a player is hindered and the act is deliberate (ie voluntary).

    I’m aware that umpires around the world, for the last 20 years or so, have consistently not called loud voluntary grunting by ATP or WTA players as hindrance. Neither, of course, have umpires enforced the rules on time between points. To my mind, if umpires believe that any player is using a “grunt” to interfere with or affect the way his or her opponent plays his or her next shot, then there’s nothing in the hindrance rule as written which prevents the umpires from doing so.

    1. Jewell
      Jewell January 13, 2014 at 2:57 am |

      Andrew, if grunting as hindrance was equivalent to the time between points rules, we would absolutely see umpires calling it. Not every time but when it got “too much” we would see it. We see time warnings frequently, even before last year’s mini-crackdown on the ATP tour. If umpires could call it, there would be times when they would.

      The person who wrote this piece is a trained official. Granted, that doesn’t mean she’s automatically right. But she is a lot more likely to be so than the rest of us who have no training or experience.

      There’s a lot more about Clarey’s piece that I objected to that we never got around to discussing, aside from grunting and/or hindrance. Am happy to go another few sets. 🙂

    2. Ana
      Ana January 13, 2014 at 2:08 pm |

      I’m hopeful that U&L will join us to explain a key aspect of the hindrance rule that seems to be missing from Andrew’s argument.  She’ll certainly articulate it better than I can, given her expertise. In the meantime, two quick points. 1) Do we really see umpires taking on the responsibility of determining which non-linguistic vocalizations are voluntary & which involuntary? That strikes me as a huge can of worms. Enforcing maximum “acceptable” volumes (once they’re determined & courts are equipped with technology to measure them) is a separate issue, one I believe the WTA plans to address.

      2) If a player thought that he or she was hindered by an opponent’s behavior, surely he/she would say something to the umpire about it.  Navratilova, famously, did back in a 1992 Wimbledon semifinal against Seles.  But you don’t actually hear that many players complaining–some, yes, but not as many as you might expect, given the amount of ink spilled on the topic. When asked about it after an AO match against Bojana Jovanovski (among the loudest “grunters” on the WTA) last year, Sloane Stephens said she didn’t really notice it because she was focused on her own game.  That’s the sort of answer such questions (“Doesn’t the noise bother you?!”) tend to get.  Also, it’s worth noting that “Isn’t it annoying?” is not the same question as “Did it hinder you on point X?”

      So, to me, the hindrance argument falls flat–both because of how the rule can/can’t be interpreted & applied and because the main people complaining about the noise are not other players but members of the media & fans (most specifically, tv viewers).

  10. Matt Vidakovic
    Matt Vidakovic January 12, 2014 at 8:03 pm |

    Firstly, I completely agree on the subtle, even unconscious, sexism so rampant amongst American, but especially English, journos. It has to end.

    Secondy ”When I want provocative, I read Bodo.” HAhhhaha so TRUE.

    Finally, what strikes me as the saddest part of the whole grunting issue is how fundamentally irrelevant it actually is. I don’t like the grunting – I confess it can be annoying. But it is such a small, inconsequential aspect of the game, and my experience of it, that this very line I’m writing now should be the MOST anyone would spend on it. ”Hey grunting, isnt it annoying?” ”Yeah sure, a bit.” END OF STORY.

    The fact that its been blown up into such a big ”ISSUE” only goes to highlight that the routs of it are in the above mentioned ”casual” sexism, and not in any legitimate complaint. Nadal grunts a lot…sometimes does Nole. Anyone complaining? Didn’t think so….

  11. Max
    Max January 13, 2014 at 5:52 pm |

    On-court coaching does send a terrible message.
    It doesn’t add any value to the broadcasting as it’s irrelevant pep talk or it’s in a foreign language.

    This piece could’ve been better but Mr. Clarey is usually much more WTA-friendly than the old British dinosaurs.

    1. Jay Jarrahi
      Jay Jarrahi January 13, 2014 at 10:37 pm |


      What is the terrible message being sent from on court coaching? I would genuinely like to know, as I can’t possibly think of one that is legitimate or consistent with near enough any other professional sport in the world.

      I would also disagree with you that it adds no value to broadcasting (even if it is in a foreign language, the way players interact with their coaches certainly interests me, even if I don’t understand what is being said, it’s a brief look into the personality of the particular relationship), nor do I even think its usage should be based on whether it does or not. I think it’s fine because players pay coaches to coach them. And that means coaching before matches, during matches and after matches. If there are players who choose not to ever use it, that’s fine, good for them. Those who do want to use it should do so and I don’t look down on them for it.

      Sometimes it’s worthwhile for a player to get a pep talk, it happens in many sports. Sometimes it’s worthwhile for a player to get some in-game tactical advice that may well be adjustments from a pre-match plan, it happens in many sports. In none of the other sports where I see this happen umpteen times on a daily basis, be it NBA, NFL, football and so on, do I ever see or hear anyone suggesting that the players are made to look “weak” because of it, as has sometimes been suggested about WTA players who choose to accept on court coaching.

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