As Wimbledon begins for another year, the stars of the tennis universe are aligning. Andy Murray might have pulled out, but the world feels more interested in the return of Serena Williams, who returns after having her first child. One of the most iconic humans of our times is back and we’ll all be delighted to watch.
Yet even the presence of Williams can’t really undo tennis’s long-running sexism problem. Former world number one Billie Jean King was fighting against it in the 1970s – yet the battle rages on.
So, where to start? Well, there’s the commentary. The BBC’s John Inverdale said that Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli was “never going to be a looker” in 2013 (and has since apologised. Three years later The Times fixated over her weight loss). Last year, the 59-year-old former tennis champion turned commentator, John McEnroe, scoffed that if Serena Williams was ranked with men, she’d fall somewhere around the 700 mark. He even suggested that, because she was pregnant at the time, he could beat her.
Last month, one male tennis journalist asked Serena Williams if she was “intimidated” by Maria Sharapova's “supermodel looks”, while also mentioning in the same question that Donald Trump thought Sharapova’s shoulders were “alluring”. (Nice work: objectification, belittlement and body shaming in one fell swoop.)
No woman who has ever had a period would ever choose an all-white sports uniform
And then, of course, there’s pay. While tennis pays more equally than a lot of sports, those at the top feel the biggest pay gap. In 2016, Roger Federer made $731,000, while Williams took home $495,000 (Wimbledon was the last grand-slam tournament to offer equal pay, in 2007). That year, Novak Djokovic (having already said that women were “very, very lucky” to be playing in the era of tennis with such great men and “riding on the coat-tails” of the men’s game) made clear what he thought about pay, suggesting that men be “awarded” more because they have “more spectators” – the very same argument Billie Jean King was battling 40 years ago.
And there’s a pay gap off the court, too. Earlier this year, nine-time Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova revealed that McEnroe was paid a staggering 10 times more than her by the BBC. In response, the BBC released a statement calling McEnroe the “expert” and that “gender wasn’t a factor”.
For others, there is significance in when games are played. Former tennis star Chris Evert told The Times that the women’s singles final should be played on the same day as the men’s. “I think it could change. In a lot of ways, it’s a mirror of the world. It’s still a man’s world,” she said. “It’s definitely not equal right now and this is the time that we are having more and more conversations about equality.”
Williams herself is leading a lot of the conversations about equality in her sport. This weekend, she spoke candidly about the realities of having a baby and preparing for the tournament. She said that she hoped her own admission of having to stop breastfeeding in order to lose weight would dispel myths for other women. “I literally sat Olympia in my arms,” she said. “I talked to her, we prayed about it. I told her, ‘Look, I’m going to stop. Mommy has to do this.’ I cried a little bit.”
Judy Murray, tennis coach and mother of Andy, has also spoken out about the sexist culture of the sport, suggesting that tennis needs to face it’s own #MeToo moment. Speaking to The Guardian this weekend, she said, “I think everybody who’s on the circuit would be able to name you something that isn’t quite right. It’s very easy for a young, inexperienced player to be taken advantage of ... It’s really about the women getting to the stage in their life where they feel confident enough to speak out. Who do you speak to? There should be an independent sports body, where players can go where they know someone will listen to them and they know someone will act on it – whether that’s emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Often you’re scared to speak because you think it will prejudice people against you.”
Of course, these are all high-profile examples of how the game of tennis has been one designed for and around men. (No woman who has ever had a period would ever choose an all-white sports uniform.) And the culture of power and discrimination always trickles down from the top; so, what happens in tennis camps and schools? We don’t even hear those stories. But Evert makes a good point: we are in a moment of change, our tolerance of sexism is melting away in this moment of resistance and equality is more important than ever. “Expert” opinions on female tennis players’ looks are not to be brushed over. Sexist comments to Serena Williams are not to be unchallenged. So, will the game finally catch up with the rest of us? At least we can watch Serena while we wait to find out.