FRENCHMAN JO-WILFRIED TSONGA REIGNITED THE AVOIDABLE DISCUSSION AT THE 2013 AUSTRALIAN OPEN BY SUGGESTING AT A POST-MATCH PRESS CONFERENCE THAT WOMEN POSSESS LESSER ABILITY THAN MEN, REPORTS SAIBAL CHATTERJEE
Tennis is perhaps the only major global sport in which men and women enjoy more or less equal billing. It has taken decades for reasonable gender equality to evolve. However, the debate over whether the fairer sex brings as much value to the game as the male players never ever seems to cease.
Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga reignited the avoidable discussion at the 2013 Australian Open by suggesting at a post-match press conference that women possess lesser ability than men and that their greatest weakness is that they are unable to control their emotions on the court.
Tsonga’s controversial statement, which came after his quarter final loss to Swiss legend Roger Federer, reflected what can best be described as a long-nurtured collective patriarchal prejudice against women players on the professional circuit.
The French player had been asked by a journalist why the women’s game did not see the kind of sustained dominance by a small group of players as men’s tennis usually did.
While that suggestion was factually incorrect – many all-time greats like Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Serena Williams and Monica Seles have been invincible at the height of their careers – it gave Tsonga an opportunity to air his chauvinistic views on the women players on tour.
The very next day, an unfortunate event unfolded. The then World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus took two medical time outs in the second set of her semi-final clash with American teenager Sloane Stephens.
In the courtside interview after the match, Azarenka appeared to admit that she had panicked and needed the medical time outs in order to pull herself together. She later withdrew that explanation but it was too late by then.
The damage had been done – both to the player individually and to women’s tennis as a whole. She was accused of cheating not only by Stephens’ coach but also by several former tennis professionals. Azarenka will probably have to live with the slur forever.
Even though women players on the professional tennis circuit are enormously popular and have huge fan followings, sexism is alive and kicking among those who run and cover the game at the top level.
Both in terms of television ratings and sponsorship volumes, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal enjoy a clear edge over the likes of Serena Williams, who, at age 31 earlier this month, became the oldest woman to ever be No. 1 in the WTA rankings, Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic.
There can be no denying that the top players on the women’s pro tennis circuit bring eyeballs to the game. But, unfortunately, they are often in the news more for what they wear and how they look on the tennis court than for how they serve and volley.
A Maria Kirilenko or an Angelique Kerber or Marion Bartoli, no mean tennis players, attracts media attention as “sex symbols”. This kind of lopsided coverage only reflects the erroneous notions about the sporting ability of women.
It is one thing to say that women cannot match men in a masculine sport like football – men are after all stronger than women. But to suggest, like Tsonga did in Melbourne, that women are hampered by biological reasons is stretching the point too far.
Professional tennis is clearly segregated by gender – we have the ATP world tour for men and the WTA tournaments for women, which run concurrently but separately. With the exception of the mixed doubles events at various Grand Slams, men and women do not play against each other.
How women are built mentally and physiologically should never be a matter of discussion because the two genders aren’t playing against each other. And if the women’s game is indeed more unpredictable than men’s tennis, it should actually be seen as an advantage. It only makes matters more interesting for the spectators.
At the Grand Slam events, there is now parity between the two genders in the prize pool. But off the court and in the media, a Federer or a Djovokic get far greater play. They also attract bigger endorsements than the women.
Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki is written about far more about her liaison with golfer Rory McIlroy than for her exploits on a tennis court. A Sharapova is far more likely than an Andy Murray to be quizzed on what she plans to do on Valentine’s Day. This is, by no means, a recent phenomenon.
In the past, too, players like Gabriela Sabatini, Anna Kournikova and Mary Pierce have been in the unenviable position of being projected as pin-up girls of the tennis world.
One can only hope and wish that Australian-born UK star Laura Robson and Sloane Stephens, both 19, do not meet the same fate. How their careers pan out will, of course, hinge on whether the way the world looks at women’s tennis will ever change.