On Sunday, CBS was broadcasting a blockbuster fourth-round match at the U.S. Open between Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki. To set the stage, a graphic about Wozniacki's career was flashed on the screen -- tournament wins, rankings, things like that.
"She just had that very public break-up with that golfer, Rory McIlroy," John McEnroe said as the graphic sat on the screen, unacknowledged.
There it was. Before the first game of the match was even complete, Wozniacki went from former No. 1 to former girlfriend.
This has been a common refrain throughout Wozniacki's break-up with her fiancé McIlroy. We first saw it at the French Open, when she was less than one week removed from the end of her engagement.
Her tight first-round loss to Yanina Wickmayer wasn't shown on Tennis Channel at all, but the network went live to her press conference, clearly looking for break-up related tears. Wozniacki, composed as ever, didn't oblige.
The headlines that followed clearly conflated her loss to her break-up, completely ignoring the fact that she was injured coming into the tournament and had only begun practicing a couple of days before her match.
This wasn't a one-time thing, of course. It happened at Wimbledon a month later when she was asked after a first-round win whether she would ever try online dating since she's now single. And it's still happening now, as she's having her most successful run at a Slam since 2011.
"U.S. Open: Caroline Wozniacki thriving after McIlroy split," reads a CNN.com headline for an article that goes on to discuss her relationship for the first 10 paragraphs.
The message is loud and clear -- Wozniacki is not a 24-year-old top athlete who is finding her form again after a couple of wayward years on tour (a process which, by the way, began in March before it was derailed by injuries during the clay-court season). She's simply a jilted ex-girlfriend out for revenge.
Whether single or encumbered, Wozniacki -- along with most other women in the public eye -- is forever defined by her relationship status first and foremost.
Fair game, you might say. Wozniacki and McIlroy are famous athletes who put their relationship out there in the public eye, so we get to talk about it. The break-up was mentioned when discussing McIlroy's recent successes too. It's a part of the story.
I'm not denying any of the above. It's a part of Wozniacki's story, but making it out to be the entire beginning, middle and end of her journey as a professional athlete is not only lazy, it's a down-right incorrect and destructive narrative.
I've written before about how to talk about women's tennis, but this is about more than that. This is about why it matters how we frame the stories of female athletes, and it goes well beyond Wozniacki and the break-up heard around the world.
You'll rarely make it through a set of a Sharapova match without the commentators talking about her off-court empire and feigning surprise that she even still cares about tennis since she's rich and famous. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal rarely, if ever, get the same treatment.
Eugenie Bouchard, the young Canadian who made it to the semifinals of both the Australian Open and the French Open and then the final of Wimbledon this year, is widely associated with Sharapova and this concept of "marketability." What the WTA brass, tennis media, and fans are really expressing when they use that code word is relief that Bouchard is conventionally attractive enough to make selling women's tennis simple.
The focus on the looks of female athletes is so prevalent and widely accepted that 46-year-old Boris Becker, who is employed both as a commentator for Sky Sports and as a coach for Novak Djokovic, could tweet out that Bouchard was "easy on the eye" without causing anything other than a few eyerolls.
Sharapova is one of the best competitors in the history of tennis, and has five majors to her name. Bouchard has already shown the self-confidence and on-court assertiveness that could make her a comparable champion. Their looks and outside interests shouldn't be the primary story, the same way that Wozniacki's single status shouldn't be hers.
This is the time when the masses start to counter -- but what about the men? McIlroy has been asked about the break-up too. Grigor Dimitrov models and dates Maria Sharapova, and both of those things are mentioned. Novak Djokovic's wedding made headlines.
All of that is true, but saying that those things are equal to how female tennis players are portrayed by the media is just ignorant. Nobody questions whether men should be professional athletes. Nobody says that they can't handle the pressure of being a top athlete due to hormones or monthly cycles. Nobody is actively trying to put men back in their place by relegating them to a mere side act.
"Everything is not even, and not being mindful of such basic reality is tone-deaf," Howard Bryant of ESPN wrote last week when discussing the conversation surrounding Taylor Townsend's weight and the implications that Serena Williams plays like a man. "This is not an issue about oversensitivity. It is an issue about power."
Men still have the power, and if you don't believe that, you haven't been paying attention. This week's news events once again emphasized how women, especially those in the public eye, are still seen as a commodity open to gaze and scrutiny, primarily by males, no matter the scenario.
That's why all of this matters -- because if even the most talented female athletes in the world can't keep from being defined by their sexual appeal to men and relationship status, then what hope do the rest of us have?
Tennis is in a rare position where the women regularly occupy the same stage and get paid the same amount as their male counterparts. Due to this, people are paying close attention to how the media discusses women's tennis.
Therefore, it's important for the media to focus on the athlete before the female. To lead with on-court journeys, rankings, titles, forehands, serves, and backhands. To discuss on-court losses before off-court losses, and to lift up on-court accomplishments beyond the rest. There is a time and a place to gossip about the personal lives and the outside interests, but it should never be at the forefront of a match broadcast or article.
Leave the body dissections and heartache rumors to the tabloids. Young women and men are tuned into tennis, and for many of them this is their only exposure to female athletes. Stop the cycle of sexism and let the rackets do the talking.
Wozniacki upset Sharapova on Sunday, setting up a quarterfinal clash with Italian Sara Errani on Tuesday night in Arthur Ashe Stadium. The opening broadcast, before the Federer match that started the night session, referenced the break-up, and I was prepared to document all mentions of the R-word during her match.
But then a funny thing happened. Against a heavy wind and a defensive-minded opponent, Wozniacki played some of the best tennis of her life. She served and returned emphatically, and was patient but aggressive during rallies. She dominated Errani 6-0, 6-1 in just over an hour, hitting 26 winners to 10 unforced errors.
Chris Evert and Mike Tirico were calling the match for ESPN, and they were so enamored by her fantastic play that there was no mention of her personal life beyond a thinly-veiled reference of a "rough summer." It was about her tennis, and, at least for that one short night, that was enough.
Hopefully, that will become less the exception and more the rule. After all, bitter ex-girlfriends are everywhere. That trope has been worn out. But a former-No. 1 player now ranked outside the top 10 and contending for her first major? That's an original story that I want to watch.