Category Archives: Tennis

Where is Eastern Europe? 

There is no doubt that so far Euro 2017 has been a great success and a credit to women’s football. TV audiences are going up – the audience for Holland’s first game was 172 per cent up on their opener four years ago even though the event is in Holland so people who might have been watching on TV had the event been played elsewhere were watching in the stadium. Also the games are getting more competitive despite the event being expanded to sixteen teams. There has only been one mismatch (England v Scotland) as the players benefiting from an increase in professionalism are fitter and stronger than ever before. What used to be a predictable event has produced shock results.  For example 2013 runners up Norway have crashed out of the tournament without winning a point or scoring a goal and already eliminated Italy defeated Olympic silver medalists Sweden 3-2 last night. It is clear that women’s football is both improving in standard and increasing in popularity. 

But there is one big anomaly. Last night Russia were eliminated. The country did not disgrace themselves – in fact by beating Italy 2-1 they won their first match at a Euro at their thirteenth attempt and in their fourth Finals tournament – but Russia were the only Eastern European country (meaning the countries of the old Warsaw Pact plus the old Yugoslavia) to play at the event. This is a big contrast to men’s football (the 16 teams in Euro 2008* included five teams from Eastern Europe). Nor is this situation unique to this tournament. In all the women’s European Championships eighteen countries have taken part only two of them from Eastern Europe (apart from Russia Ukraine qualified in 2009). Ukraine won one meaningless game at that tournament meaning that counting this year Eastern European teams have won two out of eighteen games at women’s Euros. 

I find that a baffling statistic. Now it could be said that Eastern Europe is a sexist part of the world but it has a good record in women’s sport that is not football. An example of this is in “Playing With the Boys” by Eileen McDonough and Laura Pappano (page 204) “America was losing the athletic cold war and one big reason, political leaders concluded, was because US females were being soundly beaten by their Soviet rivals. At the 1960 Olympic Games, for example, Soviet women earned twice as many medals as American women, 28 to 12”. So it was clear that at least before the passing of Title IX and the collapse of Communism Eastern European female athletes were superior to their American and Western European counterparts.

Another example is the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) rankings. Remember only one of the top sixteen women’s football teams in Europe is Eastern European (Russia). In contrast eleven of the top sixteen European WTA players represent Eastern European countries. Women from the Czech Republic, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Latvia and Slovakia are among the list including new World number 1 Karolina Pliskova, number 2 Simona Halep and the sport’s newest Grand Slam Champion Alona Ostapenko. To add to this four of the top sixteen European WTA players who do not represent an Eastern European country had at least one parent from Eastern Europe (Angelique Kerber, Johanna Konta, Caroline Wozniacki and Kristina Mladenovic). So fifteen of the top sixteen European women tennis players are either born in Eastern Europe or have Eastern European parents. Interestingly of the women mentioned above three – Wozniacki, Halep and Mladenovic – have fathers or brothers that are/were professional footballers. 

Yet in contrast 20 out of the 46 countries that entered the Euro 2017 qualifing tournament were Eastern European. Of those 20 two were knocked out in the Preliminary Round, and of the other 18 all but Russia and Romania finished third or lower in their groups. Six Eastern European countries finished the qualifing groups without a point. It is quite amazing that 14 out of 26 Western European countries qualified for Euro 2017 and only one out of 20 Eastern European countries did. It shows that at the moment in women’s football Eastern Europe is a second division. 

The only explanation – since it is clear from their success in women’s sport (tennis, track and field, gymnastics and weightlifting for example) that Eastern Europe has female athletic talent and encourages it – is that there is something about football that the establishment in the Eastern European countries does not like. Their past and current success in women’s sport shows that – unlike the UK and US in the past – Eastern Europe is not hostile to women’s sport but they are to women’s football.  I have no idea why. 

But there is encouragement for women’s football in Eastern Europe. The impressive performances of Portugal and especially Belgium and Austria in their first major Finals shows that if you invest in women’s football you will reap the divided. And we know from what I mentioned above that Eastern Europe has the female athletic talent. 

If Eastern Europe ever gets its act together and takes women’s football seriously it could revolutionise two sports. Imagine if the next generation of Pliskovas, Haleps and Ostapenkos chose to be professional footballers not tennis players. That could be catastrophic for the WTA. As an article in the New York Times (March 6 2016) puts it “But it is just as crystal clear that the WTA is on borrowed time when it comes to global leadership. Women’s soccer, a still-drowsy giant, continues to stir”.  If that giant ever wakes up in Eastern Europe which supplies most of the tennis talent in Europe tennis might lose its status as the dominant professional sport for women. 

Right now the place to see Eastern European female athletic talent is on the tennis court. On the football field Eastern Europe is almost irrelevant. But that could change. If a future generation of Pliskovas, Haleps and Ostapenkos ever chose football and not tennis the WTA could be in deep trouble. 

*I did not use Euro 2012 as a comparator since Poland and Ukraine qualified as co hosts thus inflating the number of Eastern European teams, or Euro 2016 as it had 24 teams.

Wimbledon must scrap Manic Monday 

It would be nice to go through a whole Wimbledon without complaints about sexism. And maybe we will one year. But unfortunately it won’t be this year. As usual at Wimbledon sexism has reared its ugly head. 

The first complaint was from former World number one Victoria Azarenka who has recently returned to the professional tour after giving birth to her first child Leo last December. Azarenka’s gripe was that on the first Monday her match was one of four that was not given a court or a time meaning she had to stay at Wimbledon all day and away from her child. I’ll give Wimbledon the benefit of the doubt here and suggest it was incompetence rather than sexism – but really since Azarenka is a former World number one and a two time Grand Slam champion her match should have gone on first on one of the show courts then she would have known when she had to start and could plan her day accordingly. With pro players Serena Williams and Mandy Minella currently pregnant accommodating mothers and children is going to become a more pressing issue for all tournaments in the future. 

The latest controversy came during yesterday when some big women’s matches were put on the outside courts. World number one Angelique Kerber was not happy that her last 16 clash with Garbine Muguruza was on Court number 2 – quite rightly as the two women had between them won three out of the four Grand Slam titles last year. Also unhappy was the sports newest Grand Slam champion Alona* Ostapenko. Her match with fellow rising star Elena Svitolina was on Court 12. Former World number one Caroline Wozniacki was also unhappy that her match was on an outside court saying “That’s something we’ve talked about at Wimbledon for the last ten years. It’s been the same for ten years straight. The other grand slams are more equal (in their) positioning of men’s and women’s matches.” Former three time champion Chris Evert weighed in “There needs to be a discussion because we have equal prize money, sonwhy do we not have equal representation on Centre Court and Court One?” she told the BBC. 

The reasons that there are less women’s matches than men’s matches on Wimbledon’s show courts are unique to Wimbledon. First of all play on Centre and number one courts starts at 1pm while on the other courts play starts at 11.30 am. That means that there are usually only three matches a day on the two main show courts compared to four on the outside courts. You cannot get an equal number of men’s and women’s matches on a court with only three matches but too often (as happened yesterday) there are two men’s matches and one women’s match on both show courts meaning men’s matches outnumber women’s 4-2. It really should be a combined 3-3 between centre and number one courts.

But what made it worse was that yesterday was “Manic Monday” where in lieu of play on the Middle Sunday all the men’s and women’s last sixteen matches are played. The sexist scheduling and the fact that all the last sixteen matches are played on one day means that 4 out of 8 (50%) of the last sixteen men’s matches are played on the two show courts but only 2 out of 8 (25%) of the last sixteen women’s matches were played on the two show courts. It is clear to any one with a brain that this is sexist scheduling. 

There are two easy solutions. First start play on all courts at 11.30 am. If the corporate hospitality brigade can’t be bothered to turn up at that time give their seats to the queueing fans and ban them from coming when they do bother to turn up.  That way you can have two men’s and women’s matches on Centre and Number One courts each day. 

The second solution is have play on the Middle Sunday and split the last 16 into two getting rid of “Manic Monday”. Not only is the scheduling on Manic Monday blatantly sexist the day has other problems. First it is too long. In most years all the matches aren’t finished on the day even if it doesn’t rain. For example men’s number two seed Novak Djokovic’s match did not even get started yesterday because the preceding matches took two long which puts Djokovic at an unfair disadvantage compared to his rivals for the men’s title. 

Now if play on the show courts started at 11.30 am and “Manic Monday” was abolished that would mean all eight women’s and men’s last sixteen matches could be played on the two show courts which would mean true gender equality. Which is surely what we want…

But not everybody wants this. Jim White of the Daily Telegraph wrote today “But the fact is, box office talks. And with the big four of Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, plus Venus Williams and Johanna Konta taking the six available matches on the two big show courts, the rest of the field was spread among the club. Which might be bruising to the Ostapenko ego…”

Oh dear where do you start with that nonsense? People pay for show court tickets well in advance so the box office appeal of players should be irrelevant. Ostapenko wants equality with men it is not a matter of ego. Besides why they shouldn’t play on the show courts start at 11.30 on the show courts meaning there would be eight available matches instead of four? And why shouldn’t there be play on Middle Sunday so that all of the last sixteen matches for both genders can be played on the show courts. Defending sexist inequality is a tough task but trust our press to do it. Frankly foreign tournaments should ban our press until they learn to cut out sexist nonsense. 

The case for starting play on all courts at 11.30 and having play on Middle Sunday is unarguable. The corporate hospitality brigade and traditionalists will howl in protest but they can be safely ignored. The world is changing and Wimbledon needs to change with it. We have got equal prize money. It is time for equal scheduling. Those who defend the sexist status quo like Jim White are on a loser here….

*The name on Ostapenko’s passport is “Jelena” but she wants to be known as “Alona” so I have respected her wishes. 

Sharapova should restart at the bottom

Today’s Daily Telegraph features an interview with a female tennis player who served a ban for a positive drug test and made her comeback at the indoor clay event in Stuttgart. No it’s not the one you’re thinking of (I’ll get to her later…).

The player I’m talking about is Barbora Strycova the World number 20 from the Czech Republic. Strycova is a member of the successful Czech Fed Cup team who have won the Fed Cup in five of the last six years. Not as famous as her compatriots Petra Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova she was still an important part of the team and in the last two years she played in the final decisive doubles rubber which clinched the title for the Czechs. 

But she wasn’t always as highly regarded. In 2012 she tested positive for the banned stimulant sibultramine as a result of consuming a dubious weight-loss supplement called Acai Berry Thin. On April 22 2013 she made her comeback in the first qualifying round of Stuttgart (I’ve emphasised​ qualifying quite deliberately) losing to Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. After Stuttgart she played in a humble $25,000 ITF tournament in Wiesbaden Germany which is the lowest level of the women’s professional game. She lost in her first match. She had to qualify for all the Grand Slams – two of them successfully – and play more ITF tournaments. She was given no favours which having served a drug ban she should not have been. But to her credit she grafted and at the end of 2013 she had got back into the World’s top 100.

Four years later, on April 26 2017 another female tennis player will make her comeback from a drugs ban – a fifteen month drugs ban. This is of course Maria Sharapova. Sharapova like Strycova will make her comeback in Stuttgart. But that is where the similarity ends. First of all the tournament starts on April 24 but Sharapova’s ban ends on the 26th. But shamefully Sharapova will be allowed to play in Stuttgart despite this and she will be given the right to start on the 26th – a Wednesday – while players like Strycova who will be playing for the Czech Republic in the USA the week before – have to start on Monday or Tuesday. 

Even worse Sharapova has been given a wildcard straight into the first round of Stuttgart. And not only Stuttgart. She has also been given wildcards into the first round of the Madrid Open and the Rome Masters. Remember Strycova had to start in the qualifying of Stuttgart and play humble ITF events. Why shouldn’t​ Sharapova?  After all she failed a drug test too and her ban was longer than Strycova’s. 

I should stress I’m not blaming the tournaments in question as Sharapova is a draw and the tournaments are out for their own interests. I am blaming the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). This gutless spineless excuse for a governing body should make sure all players are treated equally. If Strycova had to start in the qualifying round of big tournaments and in humble ITF events so should Sharapova. So should anyone who fails a drug test. Now if a player is a victim of a stabbing (like poor Petra Kvitova was before Christmas) or if a player falls pregnant and has a child (as Victoria Azarenka did last year) they are fully entitled to wildcards and having their ranking protected. But a player who failed a drugs test should not be given preferential treatment either to clean players or to other players who failed drug tests. 

Hopefully the Grand Slams behave differently. Sharapova will definitely either have to qualify for the French Open or rely on a wild card. She might have to do likewise for Wimbledon if she has not accumulated around 600 ranking points by May 22. The French Open and Wimbledon must NOT reward a player who failed a drug test. Sharapova is entitled to attempt a comeback. But the French Open and Wimbledon must do what the WTA did not have the guts to do. They must not give her a wildcard. Sharapova and all other drug test failures should be told they must restart at the bottom. Just like Barbora Strycova had to…

Write it Right: Things I Wanted to Say About Wimbledon

The Tennis Island

Over the last two weeks…

I wanted to write about the dreary commentary by Doug Adler — who saw it fit to point out everything that he perceived as negative during a match and ruined the thrilling first round encounter between Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova by virtue of his mere presence in the booth.

I wanted to write about how one-dimensional and short-sighted it was that the majority of Dominika Cibulkova‘s discussions in the second week were about her marriage rather than her tremendous run from Eastbourne to the quarterfinals of Wimbledon — including the match of the year against Agnieszka Radwanska.

I wanted to write about how the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club organizers kept walking a tightrope between ignorance and sexism with the way they scheduled a five-time singles champion in Venus Williams to play on Court 18 — something that would never happen to a male athlete.

I…

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Time to end the tennis fashion show

To say that the last fortnight has been unpredictable is an understatement. The UK voted for Brexit and Prime Minister David Cameron subsequently resigned. He will be succeeded by either Theresa May or Andrea Leadsom meaning that the UK will have its second woman Prime Minister. While at Euro 2016 England were humiliated by Iceland causing manager Roy Hodgson to resign while in contrast Wales had an amazing run to the Semi Finals and it took the genius of Cristiano Ronaldo to end their dream.

But it is nice to know that even in this crazy fortnight some things never change. Serena Williams reached yet another Wimbledon Final crushing her Russian opponent Elena Vesnina 6-2 6-0 in 48 minutes the shortest Grand Slam semi final this century. Predictably this mismatch caused the UK press to criticise the fact that women players get equal pay to men players at Wimbledon. Even BBC Sport’s Twitter account got in on the act tweeting “Her match lasted just 48 minutes…but Serena Williams says female players deserve equal pay”.Twitter user Nikita (@kyrptobanana) pointed out that when Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic won matches easily the BBC just mentioned that the players had won easily they did not imply that the male players did not deserve their prize money. BBC sport subsequently deleted the tweet but the damage had been done. And the BBC are meant to be progressive at least by UK media standards…

Now I’ve mentioned the equal pay issue before (in posts “The lesson from history that proves sexist Moore wrong” and “How to end tennis equal pay arguments”) but there are a couple of issues about this year’s Wimbledon besides the equal pay debate that shows that although tennis is more gender equal than other sports it is still a long way from true gender equality.

One example is ticket prices for the men’s final and the women’s final. If you want to buy a ticket for this year’s men’s singles final it will set you back £175. If you want a ticket for the women’s singles final you will only need to pay £145. Now as Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano point out (in “Playing with the boys, pages 239-240) tennis is by no means unique in charging more to watch men play than women play. But in the case of football, cricket, rugby and basketball the higher charges can be justified by the fact that demand for tickets to see men play is higher than to see women play so the price is set accordingly. But at Wimbledon both men’s and women’s finals could fill Centre Court several times over so there is no market logic for the price difference. Nor does the fact that the men play best of five sets and the women play the best of three justify the difference. Just because the men play best of five does not mean their match will necessarily last longer. The men’s final could end say 6-3 6-2 6-4 and the women’s could end say 7-5 6-7 8-6. In that hypothetical scenario the women’s final could last longer but no one would say the women should get paid more. The length of a match is a red herring.

Another example of sexism in tennis is so taken for granted that no one notices it. The men wear shorts while the women wear dresses or short skirts that shows off the women players underwear allows men to ogle them and hinders their athletic performance. For example at this year’s Wimbledon the clothing company Nike showed off what the Daily Telegraph called “super short baby-doll dresses”. Swedish player Rebecca Peterson said the dress would distract her by flying up when she was serving. Ridiculous – and the men don’t wear outfits like this! Peterson raises a serious point about how these outfits can hinder a player’s performance. When players are serving they like to carry a spare ball with them in case they need one for a second serve. No problem for the male players who just put the spare ball in the pocket of their shorts. Women can’t do this as dresses and skirts don’t have pockets. They have to put them up their underwear giving men another excuse to stare at them. Tennis is one of the few sports where the male and female outfits are different from each other. In football, cricket, rugby and basketball the male and female uniforms are the same. Both male baseball and female softball players wear the same uniforms. Field hockey is the only other sport where the men wear shorts and the women wear skirts but at least the skirts in field hockey are not as short as they are in tennis.

There is no reason – apart from sexism and tradition – why women tennis players cannot wear shorts. Women often practice in shorts and some women – most notably Victoria Azarenka – have worn shorts in matches. If women tennis players played matches in shorts they would be making a statement that they are equal to men and that they are elite athletes not sex objects there to be gawped at by leering men.

Unfortunately the women are not being helped by their own governing body. You would think that the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) would be keen to promote their players as elite athletes not sex symbols. And you would be wrong. The WTA are actually running a best dressed player award at this year’s Wimbledon. Needless to say there is not a best dressed man award. Wimbledon is a tennis tournament not a catwalk. The women are not there to look good and be gawped at by men they are there to win tennis matches. It is time for unisex tennis outfits. It is time for grender equality. It is time to end the tennis fashion show. In fact it should have ended long before now.

The lesson from history that proves sexist Moore wrong

Raymond Moore the CEO of the Indian Wells tennis tournament – which likes to call itself the “fifth Grand Slam” – made a complete and utter fool of himself yesterday with vile sexist remarks about the women’s game. Here is what he said :

“When I come back in my next life I want to be someone in the WTA because they ride on the coattails of the men. They don’t make any decisions and they are lucky. They are very, very, lucky.

If I were a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born because they have carried this sport. They really have.”

Oh dear where do you start with this crap? First of all the Federer/Nadal era in men’s tennis can be traced back to 2003 when Federer won his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon. Women’s tennis was popular long before 2003! Secondly it is clear that if women’s tennis has been carried by Federer and Nadal then so has men’s tennis – and probably to a greater extent. Finally the remark ” ride on the coattails of the men” is wrong. That would suggest that if the women were on their own the public would not watch. Not true. At the Grand Slams and the big combined events like Moore’s tournament and Miami people come to watch the event regardless of the gender of the competitors. And a story from history proves it.

We go back to 1973. Not a good year for the UK – it started with us joining what is now the European Union and ended with the UK on a three day work week. Nor was it a peaceful year in tennis. In May Yugoslavia’s top player Nikola Pilic was banned for nine months by his federation which claimed he had refused to play in his country’s Davis Cup tie against New Zealand. On appeal the International Lawn Tennis Federation (ILTF) reduced the ban to a month – but it still included the first week of Wimbledon. The newly created players union of men’s tennis the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) was having none of that. It said that if Pilic was not allowed to play no one would do. As a result 81 of the elite male players boycotted Wimbledon. Twelve of the sixteen seeded players boycotted. As a result of the boycott of the 128 man field 78 had played in the Qualifiers (29 qualifiers and 49 lucky losers*.) The men’s event was full of unkowns.

Now if the reason people went to Wimbledon was to watch the elite men you would expect Wimbledon’s attendance that year to go through the floor. After all the men’s event was full of unkowns (the women were unaffected by the Pilic affair and had their full contingent of players there) so if the public only wanted to watch men the boycott should have wrecked Wimbledon.

It did not. Quite the opposite. The attendance at Wimbledon 1973 was 300,172. This up to that time the second highest attendance in the history of the Wimbledon Championships. That proved that people did not go to Wimbledon just to watch the elite men but they wanted to watch the women too.

Now I’m not saying they preferred the women. I don’t think they did. Had the situation in 1973 been reversed and the elite women had boycotted Wimbledon and not the men the attendance would probably have been just as high. What the 1973 scenario proved is that people go to Wimbledon to watch the event. Not the men. Not the women. But the event. And that will apply to the Australian, French and US Opens as well. And to Indian Wells for that matter.

And that is why Raymond Moore is an idiot. Most tennis fans like both genders. They like Federer and Serena. Novak and Victoria. Murray and Venus. The women’s game is not riding on the coattails of the men nor vice versa. They are both attractions for the public. Which is why
women deserve equal pay and Raymond Moore deserves the sack.

*A “lucky loser” in tennis is a player who loses in qualifying and then gains a place in the tournament when another player withdraws.

Mixed Troubles?

During the Women’s Football World Cup last year I stumbled on a Twitter conversation between Jeremy Smith, Philippa Booth and Elliott Ross of Football’s a Country. Smith had picked a hypothetical combined French male and female team and Ross tweeted the following :

the first mixed world cup is going to be a wonderful thing when* it happens. (Football’s a country. (@futbolsaCountry) June 17 2015).

An outlandish claim by Ross. But it has no chance of happening this side of the year 4000**. Apart from the fact that both FIFA and the law of the UK prohibit it the fact is that people do not want mixed sport or take it seriously – and it is an easy thing to prove.

If mixed sport was ever going to work tennis is the sport it would be most likely to gain credibility in. Men and women play the Grand Slams at the same time, both genders get equal pay for their singles and doubles events and the mixed doubles is part of every grand slam and (since 2012) it has been a part of the Olympic Games. But the fact is that mixed doubles has zero credibility whatsoever.

There are plenty of ways to prove this. A Daily Telegraph article (January 1 2010) is dismissive of mixed doubles claim to be proper sport.  It said that mixed doubles “deserves a “Carry On Lawn Tennis” image, and that it belongs at your local club, not in the professional game” Old champions like Fred Perry (“a form of men’s singles with a woman on either side of the net”) and Bill Tilden (” a completely unbalanced and in many ways uninteresting game”) were totally contemptuous of the event.

Nor do modern players take it seriously. Its easy to forget that Andy Murray was not the first member of his family to win a Wimbledon title. His brother Jamie won the mixed doubles at Wimbledon in 2007 but did not exactly take the event seriously. He was playing with Jelena Jankovic and the Serb told him that good shots would be rewarded with kisses! Not exactly what you would expect in professional sport!

And when mixed doubles returned to the Olympics in 2012 it had a hostile reception in the UK press – even though the British pair of Andy Murray and Laura Robson won the silver medal. One article said it was unfair that little Laura Robson (who is 5 ft 11 in!) had to play against giant Max Mirnyi (who is 6ft 5in). But she wasn’t playing against him she was playing against him and Victoria Azarenka.

Nor do the four Grand Slams take mixed doubles seriously. Prize money shows this. None of the four Grand Slams pay mixed doubles the same prize money as the single sex doubles. At this years Australian Open – which starts at midnight UK time – the winners of the same sex doubles events will win $ Aus 650,000 while the mixed doubles winners will win $ Aus 150,000. At last year’s French Open the figures were € 450,000 and € 114,000 at last year’s Wimbledon they were £ 340,000 and £ 100,000 and at last year’s US Open they were $ 570,000 and $ 150,000***. Plus the fact that the deciding “set” in the mixed doubles was a “super tiebreak ” (first to ten points) rather than a normal set. Only Wimbledon had the mixed doubles as the best of three sets.

All this proves that the mixed doubles is not taken seriously in tennis. And if mixed sport is not taken seriously in tennis – the sport where women are taken as seriously as men – what chance will it have in a sport like football where women’s participation is often treated with contempt? Ross, Smith and Booth’s idea of a mixed football World Cup is not a bird that is going to fly anytime soon.

* my emphasis.

** Or the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series whichever comes first (sorry Cubs fans!)

**The French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open have not announced their prize money for 2016 yet.