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 s