Tag Archives: Alona Ostapenko

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.