The ‘Gay Question’ Tennis Needs to Stop Asking

There are many articles about gay men who play sport. From Michael Sam to Ian Thorpe to Tom Daley, gay sportsmen have been figures of hatred and of heroism, labelled as perverse or hailed for their perseverance. There is a kind of leering opinion porn about gay men in sports. All love, or all bile.

In tennis, this opinion porn looms large. As a gay tennis writer, I’ve seen what feels like an endless patrol of opinions about gay men in tennis. About gay men’s experience of tennis, and all sport. There is one theme, however, let’s call it the “big question”, that lingers in these conversations – and that is the state of the locker room. Among all the opinions, the one which tantalises us is the opinions of the straight men out on the tour. With drooling relish, we wonder who would and wouldn’t be ‘cool’ with a gay competitor.

I’ve wondered this many times in the past. Now, the question itself bothers me.

Can we take a long, slow look at this question?

“Is the men’s locker room ready for an openly gay player?”

The last time Serena Williams played Indian Wells, she won the tournament. In the 13 years since that victory in March of 2001 the world no. 1 has not returned to the desert, choosing instead to maintain a boycott of the event until 2015. Her experience of victory at Indian Wells was marred by an aggressive crowd who booed her entrance to the court, the appearance of her father and sister, and every point which she was able to win. Her opponent, Kim Clijsters, found her every point loudly cheered.

There were two factors at play – one was that many believed that Serena’s entry into the final had been fabricated; her semi-final opponent had been big sister Venus, who had withdrawn from the match with injury. The other factor was race. Since their arrival on the tour, the Williams sisters had been divisive figures. Despite their brilliance, now questioned by no one, the colour of their skin made them different, it made them uncomfortable, it made them new.

Change is violent. Despite tennis having had champions with black skin in the past, it was and is a sport in which the words “predominantly white” ring loud. The tour was not ready for the Williams sisters, but in they came with their fantastic tennis and their dark skin, and slowly and painfully carved acceptance and created history.

In 2015, now a 19 time singles grand slam champion and certain to be remembered as one of, if not the greatest women’s player of all time, Serena Williams has announced that she will return to the scene of her past trauma. “Indian Wells was a pivotal moment of my story,” Williams wrote for Time, “we have the chance to write a different ending.”

A place in history is already secured for Williams, having defied the critics in the stands who would have held her down, having defied the slander that has so often been thrown at her and her sister.

The locker room wasn’t ready for black skin. It didn’t matter.

“Is the men’s locker room ready for an openly gay player?”

Martina Navratilova was an outsider on the tennis court in a multitude of ways.

First, she was aggressive and strong, far more aggressive or strong than any player in her era – a fact that made her dominant, yes, but also restricted her popularity. This was not the polite women’s tennis of old. To attack is unladylike.

Second, she was born Czech but sought the freedom of an American passport, which she was finally granted in 1981 after 6 years as a professional on the tour. Her Czech citizenship was revoked, until 2008 when dual citizenship was granted. This ambiguous nationality politicised her, and her own active political voice, critical both of the old Czechoslovakian communism and modern American democracy, leaves many uneasy. To be political is unladylike.

Finally, she was gay. She was gay at a time when the Women’s Tennis Association was already struggling with the forced outing of one of its other big stars in Billie Jean King. In conversation with Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in October 2013, Navratilova spoke of how the WTA asked her not to reveal her sexuality, as there were fears that a second lesbian scandal would send tour sponsors fleeing from the scene of the crime. To like ladies? Unladylike.

Navratilova did come out as gay*, although the story was published earlier than she would have liked. Sponsorships were indeed pulled.

Despite the controversies that surrounded her, which you can read about in more detail in this article from Steve Tignor, Navratilova played on. If there is a rival to Serena Williams for the greatest women’s player of all time, Navratilova would be high on that list. She remains the only player to have held the no. 1 ranking in both singles and doubles for over 200 weeks, her combined singles-doubles grand slam tally showing an astounding 59 victories.

She continues to be a force both politically and on the tour, taking over as coach of Agnieszka Radwanska at the start of 2015.

The locker room wasn’t ready for a political voice, or a lesbian. It didn’t matter.

“Is the men’s locker room ready for an openly gay player?”

In the summer of 2014, Andy Murray made an announcement that surprisingly sent shockwaves through the men’s sport. His new coach, replacing a now departed Ivan Lendl, would be former Australian Open and Wimbledon champion Amelie Mauresmo.

Mauresmo is controversial, and always has been.

During her career, Mauresmo was controversial for being openly gay. Years after the careers of Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, to come out on the women’s tour is still an act of bravery, as in any walk of life. At the time, jibes were made by fellow players about her game, and her sexuality. Lindsay Davenport commented that playing Mauresmo was like “playing a guy”, a comment for which the American later apologised. Upon hearing of the Davenport controversy, Martina Hingis expanded on the motif, remarking “she is half a man.” No apology was forthcoming from the Swiss.

A strong build is, of course, also a space of criticism for women in tennis, and was very much at play in these comments regarding the sturdily built Mauresmo. As the game becomes more powerful, there is a strange discomfort with the women who play it becoming obviously more powerful themselves. See: unladylike.

While it was her alleged maleness that made Mauresmo controversial as a player, it is hypocritically her femaleness that makes her controversial as a coach. The questions were swift, and condescending. “What can a woman possibly teach a man? What makes her qualified for the job? Will she be allowed in the men’s locker room?”

Suddenly, it is a male-female relationship on the ATP that is shocking, with many players stating that man-on-man is the only path to take when it comes to professional relationships on the tour.

Murray and Mauresmo have persevered despite this, both of them defiant in the face of blatant sexism. Since beginning work with Mauresmo, Murray has reached his first grand slam final since 2013 and climbed back up the rankings to the top 4 spot he so consistently occupied in years past.

The results will speak for themselves.

The locker room isn’t ready for a woman mentoring a man, but it doesn’t matter.

“Is the men’s locker room ready for an openly gay player?”

I assume you know what I’m getting at.

There will come a time, likely soon, when a player will emerge on the ATP who is openly gay. It may be a player who is already a familiar figure, it may be a young guy coming up through the juniors waiting to take on the world – for now, we don’t know.

Like Serena, he may endure booing. Like Martina, he may be politicised. Like Amelie and Andy, he may be condescended.

But, he will play.

He will step onto a tennis court week after week, and he will swing his racquet and relish his victories and mourn his losses. He might be the greatest player to ever take the court, he might be a journeyman, he might be a one-slam-wonder. It doesn’t really matter, so long as he plays.

You know what else doesn’t matter? Whether the locker room is ready for him! With great confidence I will assert that, even in 2015, any male player who came out would face opposition, both public and private, from other players on the tour, from press, from tour officials or from crowds. It’s sad, and it’s not right, but it is true.

You know what else? They’d receive incredible support.

Support from other players, support from press, support from tour officials, support from crowds. Just as with Navratilova, Williams, Murray and Mauresmo, there will always be those who celebrate difference and who celebrate talent no matter what shape that talent takes.

Those voices are louder than the opposition. History tells us so.

So, I propose we change the “big question”:

If the men’s locker room isn’t ready for an openly gay player…who cares?!

He’ll play anyway.

*Editors note: an earlier version of this article stated that Billie Jean King encouraged Navratilova to come out. Navratilova has since contacted us to explain that this was not the case.

Andrew can be found in the mountains of Switzerland, watching tennis and trying not to eat too much Swiss cheese. You can follow him on twitter @BackSwings

8 Responses

  1. Boris
    Boris February 10, 2015 at 4:29 pm |

    Would like to think most of us don’t care and wouldn’t be that bothered with the news. But with Daley and Thorpe, you had to be blind Freddie not to be thinking it already. As for the locker room & crowd, I wouldn’t want to be playing in an African or Eastern European futures event if I was that player..

  2. Karen
    Karen February 10, 2015 at 4:51 pm |

    Hi Andrew, I know I will take a lot of flack for this,but just as Michael Sam never faced any concerted bigotry in his coming out, neither did Ian Thorpe, I doubt if a male player will ever receive the backlash that Serena Williams has endured or that Billie Jean King or Martina endured in their coming out. It is interesting, at least to me, that your examples of the changing face of tennis has really only been done by the women. They are the ones who have fostered change in this sport. If a male gay player is going to come out he will have to have the full backing of the ATP World Tour. As we have seen in the pass, that organisation is not known for standing on principle about anything. They have allowed uncouth and callous behaviour to permeate the Tour with nary a word being said.

    They have allowed players and Federations to call the shots when it comes to where they play or indeed against whom (see Maziri for example). As far as I am concerned, a male gay player will have a harder time with his peers than he will have with tennis fans. There have been rumours swirling around many players and their sexual identity for years. It can’t be coincidence that none of them have decided to come out of the closet and declare themselves.

    Until the ATP World Tour makes their Tour a safe place for all players, then a player who is openly gay will have a really hard time being the first.

  3. Matt Vidakovic
    Matt Vidakovic February 11, 2015 at 8:51 am |

    Cool article, a very important issue….Congratz on the 1000th post! 🙂

  4. Seth
    Seth February 11, 2015 at 9:34 am |

    First off, congrats on the 1,000th post. I have always enjoyed this blog.

    I came out to my college team only a few years ago and it was pretty seamless. I was captain of the team, playing 1 singles and 1 doubles. It didn’t matter to my team and I think being honest with my teammates and coach, only developed a stronger bond between all of us. We were able to joke and laugh more freely. I hope whoever comes out has a similar situation with the tour, fans, etc. God knows Sasha Bajin has a enormous amount of fans from the GLTA!

    I know a player from the ATP will come out. The support for them will out weigh the negative. Players and fans of the WTA and ATP tour love the players so much, we want to know everything about them and sometimes it’s too much. I often cringe when the broadcasters point the camera specifically at the wife/girlfriend more than the coach while the player plays their match. Why do we need to care more about who they are sleeping with than who their coach is? That shouldn’t matter.

    It’s unfortunate but a reality and it probably won’t change.

    Thanks for posting this and continuing this conversation in support of all of the players.

  5. Patrick of La Verne
    Patrick of La Verne February 11, 2015 at 11:25 pm |

    Good article, Andrew.

  6. Peter
    Peter February 13, 2015 at 10:45 am |

    You know when you just kinda “know” (perhaps intuitively, perhaps recognizing a shared trait) that someone is gay? Yeah I get that from some folks on both tours.

    I was inspired by Mauresmo’s coming out.
    I was disappointed by signs of phobia, but not surprised. Haters gonna hate (btw this was NOT first coined by Swift).

    But I felt that these were on the fringe, and that she herself had already established her wall of love, as we all do, and probably given a blanket middle-finger to all the haters.

    I agree with you Andrew. It’ll be the same for whoever comes out next. You have to be fairly secure with yourself to withstand even general questions from people. And once everyone sees that you’re ok with you, then they will be too.

    Thanks for the good read,man.
    And congrats to the blog for its 1000th.

  7. Lucia
    Lucia February 15, 2015 at 6:21 pm |

    Very good read. Is going to happen, sooner than we think.

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