Calling Out Inequality in Women’s Tennis
9th September 2017
Eleanor Capaldi reflects on 44 years of the Battle of the Sexes
In September 1973 tennis legend Billie Jean King won a landmark match against Billy Riggs, known as “The Battle of the Sexes”. There was $100, 000 on the table for the winner, but the stakes were much higher than that. The Women’s Tennis Association was only formed that year (King and a group of rebels formed their own 8 tournament tour in 1970), and off court women in America were subject to archaic restrictions – they could legally be fired for being pregnant, and were unable to get a credit card. Only one year earlier America banned discrimination based on sex in schools, which in turn saw the participation of girls in physical education programmes increase. Into this forum stepped King, challenging not just one man, but an entire social attitude.
Forty-four years later and the arena of women’s tennis is frustratingly contradictory. Equal pay is now established at all Grand Slams between men and women. Women tennis players can command endorsement and sponsorship deals with the biggest brands. Yet this summer John McEnroe hit headlines for claiming that Serena Williams would rank “around 700” if she were on the men’s tour. Which she isn’t.
Williams’ achievements are vast, and her contribution to tennis formidable, yet McEnroe attempted to minimise her by virtue of a biased comparison. On the subject King said women tennis players “…have never said they’re better than the guys anyway”, citing differences in levels of androgen, testosterone, even heart size, that make direct comparisons ill advised. In disparaging Williams based on conjecture under the veil of “honesty”, he also seems to be reassuring himself that he has/had the skill to beat her. For Williams’ part, she stated on Twitter: “…please keep me out of your statements that are not factually based.”
Between King, Navratilova, and pop culture tribute, The L Word’s Dana, tennis has provided its share of lesbian icons. Much in the way that many sporting arenas are home to LB participants – such as married hockey couple Helen and Kate Richardson Walsh, boxer Nicola Adams, and basketball player Seimone Augustus. Before King won her historic match however, a fellow player had tried before her and lost; Margaret Court.
This year Court unleashed a host of bigoted views. Targeting lesbians, she complained that tennis is “full of” them, compared LGBT people to Hitler, and boycotted an airline in staunch opposition to their support of same sex marriage. Navratilova responded to this avalanche of dirge in a mighty open statement. The tennis world was united in its condemnation of Courts comments, but despite calls The Australian Open have refused to remove her name from their main show court.
Scotland’s Andy Murray spoke out to condemn Court’s attitudes, proving himself to be a consistent ally to women and LGBT people in sport. In 2016 he famously corrected a tennis interviewer who said Murray was the only tennis player to win two gold Olympic medals. Without hesitation Murray highlighted the Williams sisters’ Olympic medal hauls. Unfortunately his response gained recognition only because it is so rare.
Murray’s decision to bring in two time Grand Slam winner Amelia Mauresmo as a coach, only the second time a Top Ten Men’s player has done so, brought on the kind of commentary that might once have accompanied a secretary being promoted from behind the typewriter. Articles and airtime were continuously devoted to discussing and unpicking the wisdom, or not, of his choice, analysing and questioning Mauresmo’s abilities. The incredulity that a male player of Murray’s calibre would employ a woman, was a damming indictment of how men see women, especially when it involves positions of power, demonstrating knowledge, and experience. The degree of scrutiny Mauresmo’s appointment drew, that it provoked such a response beyond the typical observation afforded to male coach appointments, reflects the imbalance and double standards facing women in the tennis game.
It’s thanks to pioneers like King who put themselves on the (chalk) line that we’ve seen the women’s game continue to gain equal footing, but locker room chat, sexism and bigotry carries the stale air of a product at least 44 years out of date.
Battle of the Sexes is released in cinemas later this month
Eleanor is a writer and filmmaker from Glasgow, having written for DIVA, VICE, The Skinny and The Glasgow Film Theatre. Performs spoken word when not working in a museum and hoping the exhibits come to life (no sign yet, but there's time...). Proud former Pride House volunteer.