Professional tennis is one of the most popular spectator sports in the world, with billions of fans tuning in to enjoy games throughout the year. With four grand slam tournaments and over 100 other events, it’s easy to see why it draws such a crowd. However, there is a darker side to the popular sport.
Throughout history, there’s been an imbalance between the way men and women are treated, particularly in sport, and tennis is no exception. There is a definite streak of sexism deeply rooted within the sport’s standards. It can be seen in umpire decisions, tournament rulings, and even something as seemingly harmless as ticketing.
This article is examining the inherent sexism in professional tennis to open up the conversation around leveling the playing field. Asking for true equality in the treatment of both men and women is not groundbreaking. It’s what the baseline should be.
Serena Williams is undoubtedly one of the greatest female professional tennis players around. Her wins are unforgettable, and she is unapologetically herself. She’s an incredible role model to young women worldwide, not just aspiring tennis players. However, she has frequently come under fire from tournament officials and umpires for infractions that are – relatively speaking – minor.
Williams has repeatedly been fined five-figure sums and has lost games as a result of on-court violations. These have ranged from arguing with the umpire to damaging her racquet. While this may seem like a just reaction to her actions – and perhaps it is – when you consider the reactions to male players doing the same, and in some cases worse, it starts to feel questionable. Top tier players including Andy Murray, Jimmy Connors, Andy Roddick, and Roger Federer have sworn at, verbally abused, and physically assaulted umpires. Yet, they have left with a win, and only in a few cases have they been fined. Conversely, Williams is harshly penalized for every infraction, every time.
Perhaps this has been bad luck, and Williams has drawn unduly harsh umpires. Still, with the number of male players getting away with far worse infractions on numerous occasions, it seems more likely that the issue is this: the bar for women’s behavior in tennis is higher than that of men.
Mental health and the French Open
Recently, world number two seed, Naomi Osaka, announced that she would not be taking part in the press conferences surrounding the French Open in an effort to protect her mental health. She’s made no secret of suffering from depression, and her decision to step back from public appearances to safeguard her health is one that should be admired.
However, this isn’t how the tournament’s officials saw it. Instead of offering a lifeline to a clearly struggling player and supporting her decision, they kicked up a fuss that only served to stigmatize further speaking up about mental health issues and ultimately resulted in Osaka withdrawing from the tournament.
Tennis is Osaka’s career and for a tournament, which acts as her employer – as much as you can have in professional tennis – to disregard her mental health and put her in a position where she needed to choose between continuing to play or protecting her health, is inexcusable. It’s hard to know what the response would have been if a male player had stepped forward to ask for this allowance, but given the sport’s history of imbalanced responses to men and women, it doesn’t feel like a leap to suggest it would have been a different story.
Wimbledon’s subtle sexism
As well as the examples discussed above, there are also a number of smaller, more subtle ways that sexism plays out in professional tennis. Wimbledon is a great example of this.
While men play for more sets (in a standard game, not considering tie breaks or other similar scenarios), the game itself is no different than it is for women. The spectator experience is similarly as thrilling, the atmosphere is just as thick, and it’s an equally enjoyable experience.
However, the price of one ticket for a women’s final at Wimbledon is roughly a third the price of that for the men’s final, at £2,810 compared with £8,610. Whether it is explicitly stated or not, this is a clear indication that the tournament places a higher value on the men’s game than the women’s. Whatever their reasoning is for doing this, it sends an undeniable message of male superiority.
The Wimbledon trophies are another example of subtle sexism at play. The winning male player receives a regal-looking trophy, fully gilded in gold. However, the winning female player receives a plate only partially gilded. The plate is said to be a tradition, reaching back to the 19th century when a woman’s power was linked directly to the household duties she performed. Even the trophies scream sexism, and it’s hard to ignore.
While tennis is an undeniably great sport, and it will be watched for years to come, the sexism that underpins it needs to be confronted. Eradicating this discrimination from the sport would provide a more welcoming and inclusive space for the players. It would incite less anger and frustration in spectators who can spot it a mile away.
It feels ironic that in our modern, western world – where people come from all over to pursue a better life – there is still a deep-rooted undertone of discrimination and judgment. Sexism has no place in everyday life, particularly in a sport meant to provide entertainment and offer joy to its viewers. We can, and should, do better.