If you clicked on the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage just before 1PM on Monday, you’d have seen a shot of Centre Court and heard Sue Barker say, “We’re waiting for the defending champion now.” For one stupid second I actually thought she might be referring to women’s defending champion Petra Kvitova, but of course she wasn’t. She meant Novak Djokovic, because the female defending champion doesn’t play until day two. No one seems to question this or ever thinking about shaking it up. In fact, as long as women have been competing, it’s been taken for granted that men are the main attraction.
Remember when Andy Murray won in 2013? It was one of the best moments in Wimbledon history. But it’s a shame that so many tennis commentators, fans, and media outlets carelessly referred to him as the first British champion since Fred Perry in 1936. To be fair, it is hard to remember Virginia Wade won in 1977. I mean, it was only the tournament’s centenary, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the last time her Maj handed out prizes, it’s not like it was particularly memorable.
Adored Sunday's Wimbledon final but am a teeny bit cross about Virginia Wade getting largely forgotten pic.twitter.com/d0a67ZFtP9
— Andrea James (@HealthRegLawyer) July 9, 2013
I’m not suggesting there’s any deliberate attempt to undermine women, it’s probably not something the BBC or Sue Barker or commentator Tim “I never won but I’ll always have my hill” Henman are aware of. But in a way, that makes it worse. The unspoken assumption that obvs we care more about the male game only shows how much we’ve all absorbed the fiction that what men do (in tennis/the world) is more important.
To be fair to Andy Murray, that’s not an attitude he’s ever (ha) courted – he actually seems to respect women players and rightly credits his mum Judy with a lot of his success. He said earlier this year that he was surprised by the vitriol directed at Amelie Mauresmo after he hired her as his coach in 2014. While it’s almost wilfully naïve to have such a lack of awareness of how high-profile women are treated, especially in male-dominated fields, it is shocking to realise that a woman telling a man what to do is so unthinkably subversive that some people just can’t get their heads around it (Ginny Wade among them, sad to say).
Things have improved a lot for female tennis players over the last forty years (thanks in large part to goddess Billie Jean King). They’re now treated as professionals, play tournaments alongside men, and get equal prize money at the French Open and Wimbledon, even if they wear skirts. But let’s not kid ourselves. Things are still pretty sexist.
In an impressive mashup of sexism, racism, and transphobia, the Russian Tennis Federation president Shamil Tarpischev once referred to Serena as one of the “Williams brothers”. And it’s only six months since Australian TV presenter Ian Cohen asked Serena Williams and 2014 Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard to “give us a twirl” after they won matches in the first week of the Australian Open.
In 2013, BBC presenter John Inverdale wondered aloud whether Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli’s father might have told her she should work hard at tennis because she was “never going to be a looker”, drawing attention away from her achievement and toward her (irrelevant) appearance in a way that commentators never do with male players. In his defence, he did have hayfever. No really, that was his defence.
That same year, French player Jo Wilfried-Tsonga said that men make better players because women are more hormonal. And while the number of men commentating on the men’s Wimbledon final seems to be ever expanding, a woman’s never allowed in the commentary box on that last Sunday. John McEnroe does routinely cover the women’s final though.
Of course, it shouldn’t be surprising that a sport with snooty upper class roots is sexist. It also has a bad record when it comes to race, class, and LGBT issues. Fred Perry was ostracised for being working class, Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe were excluded from tournaments for being black, and the first trans tennis player Renee Richards was banned from competing in Europe. Fans haven’t acquitted themselves well, either: crowds have taunted Martina Navratilova for being gay and shouted racist epithets at Serena Williams.
Thankfully, there are signs of hope. When Serena recently returned to the Indian Wells tournament where she’d been verbally abused, she got a standing O. Judy Murray has set up a new programme, Miss-Hits, to get more young girls into tennis, and there’s been a 70% uptick in audiences for the women’s game in the last few years. Plus Clare Balding’s taken over from John Inverdale and hasn’t insulted anyone’s appearance yet.
There’s still a long way to go, but who knows? Maybe one day high-profile female coaches will be commonplace, female players will be taken as seriously as men, and the media won’t act like the women’s game is some kind of side show. That would be worth twirling for.