Category Archives: Tennis

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.

Serena Williams and the punishment of victims

It is not every day that an elite sports person returns to an annual event after a 14 year absence. So unsurprisingly the return of World Number 1 Serena Williams to Indian Wells for the first time since 2001 is a big story.

The background is this. At the 2001 event Serena’s sister Venus defeated Elena Dementieva of Russia to set up a Semi-Final with Serena. After the match Dementieva  was asked who she thought would win the match between the sisters. She said “I think Richard (the sisters’ father) will decide who’s going to win tomorrow”.  I’ve mentioned Dementieva’s remark as I think it had a big part in what happened next.

As it turned out the semi-final never took place as Venus pulled out with a knee injury. The trouble was that the tournament only announced it to the crowd minutes before the match was due to start – although the family said they had told officials hours before. The crowd understandably did not like this and rumours suggested they did not want to play each other. It has to be remembered that at the time the press were claiming the sisters’ matches were fixed (which is where Dementieva’s remark comes into the story).

But there was no excuse for what happened next. When Serena came out for the Final against Kim Clijsters she and her father were greeted by a chorus of boos. In fact during the match fans cheered Serena’s errors. her father responded by raising a clenched fist – the black power symbol – and saying it was “the worst act of prejudice I’ve seen since they killed Marin Luther King”. That might have been taking it too far but the behaviour was racist. How often does an American get booed when playing a foreigner? To show how it affected Serena a chapter in her autobiography was called “the Fiery Darts of Indian Wells” and in it she wrote:

The ugliness was raining down on me hard. I didn’t know what to do. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before…But I looked up and all I could see was a sea of rich people – mostly older, mostly white – standing and booing lustily like some kind of genteel lynch mob.

Neither Serena or Venus have played Indian Wells since until Serena’s come back this year (Venus is still boycotting the  event ).

But the point I want to make is that no one got punished for this shameful episode. The spectators were not nor was the tournament or Dementieva for her remarks which sparked the whole thing off. The only people that were punished were the victims. In 2009 Indian Wells became a Premier Mandatory event on the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tour. That means a player has to take part. If she does not it still counts towards her ranking and she gets zero points. So in effect the Williams’ sisters boycott has hindered their ranking. The WTA should be ashamed of themselves for punishing the victims of racism. Whoever came up with the idea of making Indian Wells a Premier Mandatory event should be sacked if they are still in the WTA’s employ. I suspect whoever that person is it is highly likely it is a male and I would be 99 per cent certain the person was white.

Sadly this is not the only example of the punishment of victims in sport. In Russia the chairman of their FAs disciplinary committee Arthur Grigoyants has banned black players who react to racist abuse by gesturing to the racists. He has even said that if they do that they are “so-called, in inverted commas, victims”. Which only proves that Russia is a so called, in inverted commas, civilised country that shouldn’t be hosting an egg and spoon race never mind the 2018 football World Cup.

Not that we in the UK can gloat. When footballer Anton Ferdinand was a victim of racist abuse by John Terry a lot of people attacked him for refusing to shake Terry’s hand before the next game his team played against Terry’s team. Why should he if he didn’t want to? Surely each victim should be able to respond in the way they want and the rules of arrogant sport be forced to accommodate the victim’s wishes. I suspect most people who wanted him to shake Terry’s hand were white.

The point is that we white men have no right to comment on the actions of victims of racism and sexism because we have no experience of racism and sexism ourselves. We do not know what it is like to be called “nigger” and have bananas thrown at us. We do not know what it is like to be shouted at whistled at or groped in the streets like a lot of women do. So how are we qualified to comment on the reaction of the victims themselves? We aren’t. Some can forgive. Some can forget. Some can forgive but not forget. And some can do neither. It is their right.

So it is not our business to comment on Serena’s decision to return to Indian Wells. We must respect both her decision to return to the event and the fact she has chosen to boycott in the past. We must also respect Venus’ decision to continue her boycott. And we MUST not punish the vicitms of discrimination for their reaction. Only the victims of discrimination know what it feels like. Only the victims of discrimination know what its like to suffer. We must respect their wishes.

How to end tennis equal pay arguments

The first Grand Slam event of the tennis year – the Australian Open – starts in sunny Melbourne on Monday (and when your home town is covered in snow – as mine is – you notice the sunny weather). A certain prediction is that sometime in 2015 some sexist will moan about men and women getting equal prize money at the Grand Slams even though it has existed at all Grand Slams since 2007. The worst example of sexist sports writing in 2014 came from the UK journalist Matthew Syed who wrote this rubbish “To deprive (Roger) Federer of income by handing it to female players is not far from daylight robbery”. Oh god where do you start with this one? First of all when equal pay was introduced the women’s prize money went UP rather than the men’s going DOWN so men did not lose income. Secondly Federer’s career prize money (up to January 12 2015) is $88,691,538. To say someone who has earned more than $88 million is being deprived of income is a joke and an insult to millions of poor people worldwide. That remark is so offensive I’m amazed this nonentity is still in employment – even allowing for the fact it is very difficult to get sacked in UK sport – even for racists and rapists as recent events in UK football show.
But why do sexists still moan about equal pay in tennis? The excuse they use is that men play best of five sets and women play best of three so it is unfair. This ignores the fact that the three set limit was imposed on the current women who have repeatedly asked to play five sets – and been turned down by officials. It also ignores the fact that women have played five set matches before – in fact in two different eras.
The first time women played five set matches was between 1891 and 1901 at the US National Championships. During that period five women’s Finals went to five sets played by seven different women. One woman – Elisabeth Moore – played three and another – Juliette Atkinson – played two. Yet in 1902 the United States Lawn Tennis Association – over the objections of some women – cut women’s matches down to three sets because of “concern about females overexerting themselves” (“Playing With the Boys by Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano pages 11 and 168). The next time five set matches for women occurred was in the 1990s. From 1984-1998 the Final of the season ending championships was best of five sets. Three Finals lasted that long and Steffi Graf played in (and won) two of them. After the 1990 Final between Monica Seles and Gabriela Sabatini – the first women’s five setter since 1901 – an article in Tennis ’91 (page 79) said “Women are capable of playing longer… the Final went to three hours 47 minutes of high quality competition”. That was 25 years ago. The woman athlete of today is fitter and stronger than her counterpart of 25 years ago (this also applies to the men) so there is no reason they can’t play five sets.
So why won’t the officials let them? I suspect TV doesn’t want the early days of Grand Slams – which go on long enough as it is – to increase in length. But there is an easy solution here. Since it is equality we are aiming for why not have this rule for Grand Slams. The first four rounds should be best of three sets for both genders. The Quarter-Finals onwards should be best of five sets for both genders. This would cut down overlong male matches in the first week (Like the Isner v Mahnut match at the 2010 Wimbledon that went to 70-68 in the fifth) while preserving the five set format which in my opinion is important. Sometimes long sport is the best sport – the five day cricket match, the five set tennis match and the seven game play off series being three examples. It should be preserved.
Of course some sexists would moan even if the women played five sets. They would say the men’s matches last longer so they should be paid more but that is not always true. In a combined male-female event in Beijing last year the men’s Final was won 6-0 6-2 by Novak Djokovic while the women’s Final was won 6-4 2-6 6-3 by Maria Sharapova. No one was calling for Maria to win more than Novak even though her match lasted far longer. Sexists argue that men’s TV ratings are higher but again not always so. The 2002 Wimbledon Women’s Final between the Williams sisters earned a Nielsen rating of 4.6 in the US while the Men’s Final the same year between Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian had a rating between 2.6 and 3.1.(McDonagh and Pappano page 250). Hewitt is Australian and Nalbandian is Argentinian. That proves in sport nationality as well as gender is a factor in delivering ratings.
But does all this matter? Yes it does. You cannot get rid of sexism in society without getting rid of it in sport. Too often sport is used to justify sexism in the non-sporting arena. In 1975 UK MP Ronald Bell – one of a tiny number of MPs to oppose the Sex Discrimination Bill – used gender segregation in sport to justify his theory that banning sex discrimination was an absurdity. More recently commentators on the Daily Telegraph website have used the fact that men and women are separated in sport as a reason for keeping female soldiers out of frontline combat. And last month UK journalists Elizabeth Day and Jonathan Maitland were debating equal pay for women on Sky News and Maitland asked Day if women tennis players should get equal pay. Amazingly Day said no. Funny how sport can brainwash a feminist (Day writes for liberal left UK papers like the Guardian and the Observer) into going against her own principles. Would she accept less pay than her male co-workers? Doubt it.
One other thought. Would you tell Serena Williams she is too weak to play five sets? Because I wouldn’t…