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…
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…