It has been a long time coming. It has been simmering away for quite some time. There have been hints, innuendoes and sometimes allegedly misinterpreted comments. However, the truth, as they say is out there, and it is coming to the fore in a way that makes tennis fans, at least those of us who do not have our heads buried in the sand, that tennis not only has a sexism problem, it has a racism one as well.
There has been a subtle insidiousness creeping into tennis. From the rise of Fabio Fognini and his penchant for misbehavior both on and off the court, to getting into altercations with tournament officials, to finally calling a fellow player a racial slur, the men’s tour has seen its representatives fall out of favour with fans. Alexander Dolgopolov incurred the wraths of tennis fans when he made fun of the LGBT community as well post several overtly sexist pictures of scantily clad women on his Instagram account. Sergei Stakohsky has never been far away from giving anyone with the misfortune to hold a microphone to his mouth his views on women’s tennis and the fact that the women should not be paid the same as the men.
However, none these men can be construed as leaders within the tour. When the head of Russian tennis goes on a popular night time show and demean 2 of the greatest female athletes that the sport of tennis has ever known by referring to them as the Williams Brothers, it’s time we take notice. Up to the time of writing this blog post, Shamil Tarpishev has not apologized for his misogynistic and hateful comments.
Tarpishev made his comments while on a show with none other than Elena Dementieva, who has made demeaning comments about the Williams Sisters in the past, most notably her claim that they fix matches. Tennis fans far and wide have said Elena handled the situation with class. I disagree. She did what many in the WTA have done for most of their careers: they stay silent in the midst of nasty, hateful comments against one of their own. Frankly, this is not the first time that a WTA player has remained silent when one or the other of the Williams Sisters have come under attack.
Why was Flavia Pennetta not questioned when her ‘rumored’ boyfriend, Fabio Fognini (him again) retweeted a claim by one of his Twitter fans that he must feel jealous to see his girlfriend on the court with another man? Compare Flavia’s silence to Venus’s staunch defense of Dinara Safina when journalists challenged Safina’s place as #1 after Venus beat her soundly at Wimbledon 2008? How about when Venus condemned the United Arab Emirates’s rejection of Shahar Peer’s visa application? Would any other members of the WTA take the time or effort to adopt such a stance now?
I don’t know why I am expecting another Billie Jean King from this generation of players. These are the same set of women who can’t even do their jobs without a man holding their hands down courtside, so I am not sure what I am expecting from them. I guess I am of the view that as colleagues we women would stand up for each other, no matter what.
A fellow tennis friend of mine has made the observations that as tennis becomes even more global, we will be seeing more of this type of behavior from not only the players but from the fans themselves. Gone are the days when tennis players acted with some amount of propriety and made sure not to bring the game into disrepute. As the sport becomes more global, nations that were not previously tennis havens will have their racial and ethnic histories come to the fore. They are coming with all of their racial and ethnic baggage. We will continue to see more disparaging comments being made about minorities, be they sexual or gender oriented.
What can tennis do to stop this?
Both Tours have been relatively silent on the recent issues that have permeated tennis. I think one of the reasons why the Tours have remained silent is because the journalists who cover the sport have largely remained silent on this issue. Apart from Courtney N’guyen and Ben Rothenberg, who wrote recently that the ATP Tour needs to step up in regard to Fognini, there has been a deafening silence from the media on this type of behavior. One wonders why the ATP Tour is unwilling to go after Fognini with the full force of the ATP Handbook, in much the same way that the ITF/USTA went after Serena Williams a few years ago.
If you can threaten someone and be fined US$92,000.00 why should you continue to bring the game into disrepute and keep getting a slap on the wrist? Lest we forget, when Serena was fined US$92,000 she had not laid a hand on the line official. Compare that to the fact that up to the time of writing, we are yet to hear what has happened in the case of an alleged incident which occurred with one of the Bryan brothers, which was hardly reported in the media, where he reportedly put his hand on a tournament official at the US Open. We have also not heard about a fine, if any, that was imposed on Fognini (again that fellow) when he allegedly put his hand on umpire Lahyani and invited him outside to finish an argument.
Tennis is allowing itself to be railroaded by people who fans are not even paying money to go see play. Maybe that is the reason why tennis is turning a blind eye to what is happening in the sport. However, it is all well and good for the Fognini’s and Dolgopolovo’s of this world to go about their business bringing the game into disrepute. It is quite another when the captain of the Russian Davis and Fed Cup teams makes disparaging comments about fellow players and nothing is said or done.
I think it’s time for tennis to move beyond a focus on threatening language and include the creation of a toxic environment within the purview of behavior worthy of fines or even suspension from the tour?
Future Face of Tennis
I saw a tweet earlier about Eugenie Bouchard being the future face of tennis. What exactly does that mean? Is it because she is blonde and good looking? Can she fill the seats in any stadium in the world? Do we see longevity in her? Is she a future No. 1? What makes her the Face of Tennis? If you read this blog you know that I am a Genie fan, however, this constant hype of a player whose only claim to fame is being pummeled in a Grand Slam final by winning 3 games has become weary. Lest we forget, Simona Halep also made it to a Grand Slam final and has won more titles than Genie. Last year at this time we were saying that Sloane Stephens was the Future of Women’s tennis. This year, it’s a case of we hardly knew you Sloane. My point, let these young women play their careers out. It is hard enough being on the world stage in a demanding profession. We need not pile on additional pressure by making any one player the face of anything.