It's the most wonderful time of the year for tennis fans: Wimbledon. The privately-owned grass-court major is a throwback to the old days of tennis, when lawns were prevalent and ads were nonexistent.
Some of the traditions at the All England Championships are wonderful: Pimms. Strawberries and cream. All-whites. Bowing on Centre Court if the Royal Family attends your match.
Other traditions are less endearing. Unfortunately, Wimbledon is known as the most sexist Slam. With the overflow of British tabloids covering it and the reinforced notion that Wimbledon is more "prim and proper" than other tournaments, it is often not a very friendly place for women.
Of course, Wimbledon doesn't exist in a vacuum. Sexism is everywhere. To one degree or another, we all soak it in. In an attempt to fix this, I've talked with some fellow sportswriters and come up with a handy guide to discussing women's tennis. Consider this your comprehensive cheat sheet, guaranteed to make sure you don't sound like a sexist jerk -- this fortnight and beyond.
1. Stop questioning equal prize money.
You guys, equal prize money at Grand Slams is here to stay. The U.S. Open was the trailblazer, first offering equal prize money to men and women in 1973 - more than four decades ago! The Australian Open followed suit in 2001, and the French Open in 2006.
Finally, in 2007, Wimbledon announced that it was going to offer equal prize money, thanks in no small part to a powerful letter by Venus Williams. The entire thing is worth a read (it's reprinted under item No. 9 of this blog post), but here's my favorite part:
"I believe that athletes -- especially female athletes in the world's leading sport for women -- should serve as role models. The message I like to convey to women and girls across the globe is that there is no glass ceiling. My fear is that Wimbledon is loudly and clearly sending the opposite message."
It's worth noting that before Wimbledon finally caved, the women's champion was paid an arbitrary $72,000 less than the men's. As far as I know, there was no formula based on ever-changing ticket sales or television ratings to come up with that number; it was just less for the sake of being less.
And yet, year after year, the same tired arguments get dragged out against the practice. "For equal pay, women must play best of five," wrote Rita Panahi of The Herald Sun during this year's Australian Open. Panahi failed to mention that women have repeatedly offered to play best-of-five at majors if that's what it takes. They've been turned down due to scheduling restraints by the tournaments, broadcasters and sponsors.
Many bring up television audience, floating stats that they think prove their point. But if you're going bring up the huge TV ratings that Andy Murray generates in Great Britain, then you'd better bring up Li Na's popularity in China too. It's only fair.
This could be an entire article in itself, but I'll move on. Don't be the person to stir up this argument again this year. Move on.
2. Stop looking for excuses to insult women's tennis.
As I wrote in a conversation about sexism I had on The Changeover last month, it feels like every time a female tennis player takes the court, she is playing not only for herself, but for the legitimacy of women's tennis as a whole. This does not happen with men.
For example, in March at the Sony Open in Miami, both men's semifinals were unfortunately cancelled because Kei Nishikori had a left groin injury and Tomas Berdych had gastroenteritis. Everyone agreed that this was a terrible thing for the fans and the tournament, but nobody suggested that Nishikori or Berdych should have played through injury, or that this showed that men weren't tough.
However, just the year prior at Indian Wells, two women's quarterfinals were cancelled due to withdrawals by Samantha Stosur and Victoria Azarenka. This wasn't seen merely as an unfortunate incident, but as proof that the women's tour wasn't as tough or committed as the men's tour.
It happens all the time. People -- including male tennis players -- use every blowout women's match at a major to rehash the equal prize money debate, while nobody ever threatens to take away money from the men when they play straightforward matches, which they so often do.
Women have to prove their worth as professional athletes over and over again, while men don't. It's exhausting, it's lazy, and it needs to stop.
3. If you're the media, look in the mirror first.
Two years ago at Wimbledon, Frenchman Gilles Simon re-ignited -- you guessed it -- the equal prize money debate. "I have the feeling that men's tennis is actually more interesting than women's tennis," he said, as if it were a fact.
But amongst his ridiculous and unprovoked ramblings, Simon said something that was very observant: "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."
Simon touched on something very important there: The media is very, very complicit in marginalizing women's tennis.
On Twitter, tennis fan Mark Nixon often catalogs the discrepancy in coverage between men's and women's tennis in the French newspaper L'Equipe and other outlets. It is rarely very flattering.
An article on Stan, an article on Dimitrov, an article on Fed-Falla, and nothing at all on WTA Birmingham in l'Équipe.- Mark Nixon (@markalannixon) June 15, 2014
43 Headlines - 41 ATP, 2 WTA of which one is Maria and Avon.- Mark Nixon (@markalannixon) June 12, 2014
Matt Zemek, the lead tennis writer for Bloguin and its major-tournament blogsite, Attacking The Net, echoed this notion when he brought up ESPN's disgraceful coverage of the women's semifinals at Wimbledon last year, in which they cut away from coverage of the women's competition -- for notable lengths of time -- to check in on a men's game they were already streaming live online. It's hard to imagine them doing the same during a men's semifinal.
"No Serena, Sharapova, or Azarenka on Semifinal Thursday -- plus the presence of the Bryan [Brothers] in doubles on the other court -- led to a perfect storm in which American nationalism and a disrespect for non-superstar women's singles players led ESPN to make an appallingly awful decision," Zemek noted.
The media doesn't show respect to women's tennis, so the sport and its rising stars get less publicity. Then, when the television and newspapers do cover the women, they complain that they're not generating enough interest. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
4. Don't blame everything a woman does on emotional fragility or -- I wish this went without saying -- hormones.
At the 2013 Australian Open, Frenchman (yes, another Frenchman) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga said that women's tennis was more unpredictable because women had "hormones." (Considering Tsonga has long history of inexplicable losses, his comment left tennis fans wondering what his excuse was.)
Though most don't come right out and blame hormones the way that Tsonga did, women's emotions are frequently discussed in a disparaging context in the tennis media.
Back in 2012, Tennis.com writer Peter Bodo expressed frustration that 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova -- who has a history of bad asthma that acts up in the humid North American summer -- was in tears at the end of 1-6, 6-2, 6-0 loss to Marion Bartoli in the fourth round of the U.S. Open. "The WTA doesn't need another tear-stained drama queen, claiming that life is tough and nobody understands her," he wrote. (As far as I know, Kvitova didn't claim either of those things.)
At the French Open last month, semifinalist Andrea Petkovic was asked why women had more breakdowns on the court. The German rightfully called the reporter out.
"That's sexist." -Andrea Petkovic, calling out a reporter who said mental breakdowns were more common in women's tennis. Good on her. #RG14- Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) June 2, 2014
As someone who watches a lot of tennis, I can guarantee you that the men have just as many meltdowns and outbursts as the women do. (Exhibit A: Fabio Fognini.)
Shockingly, ovaries are not required for athletes to get emotional.
5. Don't discuss their appearance unless it directly relates to the match.
Let's say, hypothetically, it's last year's Wimbledon and you're commentating on a Marion Bartoli match. If she were to start limping, that is something you should address. If she grabs her stomach in pain, please bring it up. If she is out of breath after a short period of time, you should talk about her fitness. Those are physical things that affect the tennis match.
Unfortunately, the following example isn't hypothetical. Last year during the Wimbledon final, John Inverdale was commentating for the BBC and said this about Bartoli:
"I just wonder if her dad did say to her when she was 12, 13, 14: 'Listen, you're never going to be a looker, you are never going to be somebody like a Sharapova, you're never going to be 5-foot-11, you're never going to be somebody with long legs, so you have to compensate for that.'"
Inverdale later blamed the comments on hay fever.
Situations like this can be avoided by realizing that these women are, first and foremost, athletes. A female tennis player's job is not to live up to your standards of beauty. Don't discuss physical traits -- positive or negative -- unless they directly affect the match.
6. Give the grunting debate a rest.
Yes, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka are incredibly loud when they are exerting maximum effort during high-level tennis matches. So are many men, such as Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer and (to a more extreme degree) Carlos Berlocq and Marcel Granollers.
Many seem to be bothered by women's grunts because women have more high-pitched voices, thus causing grunts to come out shrieky. Men are more guttural.
Freelance tennis writer Erik Gudris wishes that, at the very least, the complaints about grunting were a bit more evenly distributed among gender. "Excessive vocalizing can be grating to hear regardless of who does it, but if you are going to complain about the women, then to be fair, you can't ignore the guys too."
Sportswriter Jessica Luther sees the grunting complaints as part of a bigger issue. "If I never had to listen to that discussion again, I would die happy," she said. "Even if one makes a good argument for why it's a problem -- i.e. that it gives a player unfair advantage -- it will forever be couched within a larger society that generally dislikes the way that women sound. This discussion always feels like the sports version of a larger cultural discussion (that I also hate)."
Unless you have something new to add to the subject, leave the whining about grunting in the past.
7. Don't automatically equate breaks of serve with poor-quality tennis.
Here's the thing: Men are better servers than women. They are naturally taller and stronger than women, and this makes their serves very powerful and difficult to return. In women's tennis, the return of serve is more of a weapon. Therefore, there are typically more breaks of serve in a women's match than in a men's.
Accept this as a fact, not an indictment, and act accordingly. Easy.
8. Stop questioning whether female pros can beat the male pros. It doesn't matter.
This is so frustrating:
And it's not just random googlers harping on this topic. ATP players -- including Sergiy Stakhovsky, who is on the ATP Player's Council -- bring it up as well.
"@TBombCBoom: @Stako_tennis How many games do you think you can take off Serena?" You mean she will get from me..- Sergiy Stakhovsky (@Stako_tennis) February 12, 2013
Congratulations! You understand how biology works. Men are stronger than women. That is brand-new information! Seriously, suggesting that the only way for a woman to prove herself as an athlete is for her to compete against a man is insulting and stupid. Don't do that.
9. "Tennis" does not solely refer to men's tennis.
I'll let Amy Fetherolf, a fellow co-founder of The Changeover, take this one:
"Often, the media refers to "tennis" as if that means "men's tennis." For example, Andy Murray won Wimbledon last year, and major publications in the UK used headlines about him being the first British tennis player to win the tournament in 77 years. Virginia Wade won the tournament in 1977. Men's tennis never needs a qualifier, but women's tennis always needs one. Somehow, "tennis" has come to mean "men's tennis," and that's frustrating."
Well said, Amy. This is a rampant problem in the tennis media. Subjects such as surface speed, scheduling and the GOAT debate are always told through the lens of men's tennis. It's a little thing, but it's indicative of the amount of respect women's tennis gets.
It's easy to do -- I'm sure I've been guilty of it from time to time -- but check yourself.
10. Before you say anything about women's tennis, stop and think: Would I say this about men's tennis, given the same circumstances?
If this whole guide was TL:DR for you, then just remember this one rule.
If your first indication after seeing Serena sweep through a draw with ease is to talk about how bad the rest of the players were, ask yourself if you'd do the same if Rafael Nadal eased to victory. Would you lament the weakness of the men's tour, or focus on the greatness of Nadal?
If you see Maria Sharapova get emotional over a loss and want to talk about how fragile women are, ask yourself if you'd think the same thing if you saw a few tears from Andy Murray.
There is no need to treat women's tennis with kid gloves -- there are bad matches, bad breakdowns, bad shows of sportsmanship and bad players. They need to be called out. But, please, take a minute to think before you do.