Wimbledon, Women’s Tennis, and Sexism

22:24 Tue 30 Jun 2009. Updated: 23:42 03 Nov 2010
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I commented on Sunday that I’m not as interested in women’s tennis as in men’s tennis. I’ve been wondering why the disparity is so significant at the moment, as this hasn’t always been the case for me. While that was on my mind, Wimbledon and the BBC decided to throw this into the mix:

A BBC source said: “It’s the Wimbledon play committee, not us who decides on the order of play. But obviously it’s advantageous to us if there are good-looking women players on Centre Court. No one has heard of many of the women now, so if they are pretty it definitely gives them an edge. Our preference would always be a Brit or a babe as this always delivers high viewing figures.”

Huh, well, that’s to be expected from a channel trying to boost ratings, I suppose, but surely the organizers of the most revered tennis tournament in the world would have no truck with such an approach?

[L]ast night, the All England Club admitted that physical attractiveness is taken into consideration.Spokesman Johnny Perkins said: “Good looks are a factor.”

Lest you think that this is merely a line taken out of context by the Daily Mail, here are some of the women who played on Centre Court in the first week, with their seedings/rankings: Gisela Dulko (none/45th), Victoria Azarenka (7th/8th), Sorana Cirstea (28th/27th), Caroline Wozniacki (9th/9th) and Maria Kirilenko (none/59th). Those players weren’t playing any of the top five in their matches, either.

Why is this significant? First of all, it does matter which courts players are on, because conditions are different, and also because the Hawkeye system, and probably better line judges, are more likely to be present at the main courts than the outer courts. Scheduling is not done entirely on merit, and the tournaments do try to put popular players (and/or local players) on the main courts. That can be annoying at times, but it’s generally not too bad.

However, looks and popularity, while they might overlap, don’t mean the same thing here. I doubt that Kirilenko is really more popular than Safina, Dementieva, or Kuznetsova, despite being commonly considered “better-looking”. For them to come right out and say that they will put female players on better courts based on looks is simply appalling.

It’s appalling because of the double standard—I don’t see this standard being applied to the male players somehow. Granted, the sociocultural setup means that it’s less likely to come up in the same way, but that’s no excuse.

It’s appalling because of how fundamentally disrespectful it is (and would be for either gender): these players are the best in the world at their sport/profession. Court scheduling is a factor in the matches, and isn’t something completely outside match play in the way that sponsorships are—making this a rather different issue than e.g. Anna Kournikova getting better sponsorship deals than other higher-ranked players were getting. By scheduling based on looks, the message is that despite the absolutely phenomenal achievement of getting to Wimbledon, and of being one of the best one hundred (or so) tennis players in the world, the women’s skills don’t matter as much as their looks. That’s a terrible and completely reprehensible message, and one that has no place in any sport.

It’s appalling because by making looks a factor here, you’re making harsh public aesthetic judgments—how do you think Dinara Safina feels about being seeded #1 and then not scheduled to play on Centre Court when it’s clear that it’s due to the organizers thinking she’s not pretty enough?—in a realm where those judgments don’t belong (if they belong anywhere…).

All of the above holds true no matter what the current state of the women’s game. It’s true that I don’t think it’s in a good place, and that the loss of Justine Henin to retirement hurt it very badly, but tennis goes through periods like that (for both genders), and that’s no justification for caving to inane demands for “sex appeal”. Particularly when Wimbledon had record ticket sales this year.

2 Responses to “Wimbledon, Women’s Tennis, and Sexism”

  1. Radegund Says:

    It is pretty shocking to have it so baldly stated, yes.

    Out of interest, do US channels ever have female commentators on men’s matches? I’ve never encountered this in the BBC coverage of Wimbledon – members of the fairer sex don’t seem to be considered competent to comment on the performances of their lords and masters.

  2. Tadhg Says:

    Yes. For example, Mary Carillo is one of the commentators for this clip.
    It’s from the 2003 Tennis Master’s Cup, but was just the first one I could find, and I’m pretty sure she’s done commentary for men’s matches at the US Open.

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