What had felt like an ugly, but ultimately inconsequential incident on Russian TV hit the headlines in a major way this weekend. Though it had been widely reported that tennis tsar Shamil Tarpischev had referred to Venus and Serena Williams as “The Williams Brothers” in the presence of a put-off Elena Dementieva on Evening Urgant, few expected the WTA to respond as swiftly and categorically as it did. Beyond a mere condemnation, CEO Stacey Allaster fined the head of the Russian Tennis Federation $25,000 USD, demanded a public apology, and is seeking to remove the former Fed Cup Captain from his position as chairman of the Kremlin Cup tournament in Moscow. As always, Victoria Chiesa joins me to discuss the not-ready-for-primetime moment, the reaction, and how this compares to how the ATP has dealt with similar incidences from its own players. You know, the thing we literally talked about less than a week ago.
David Kane: Funny how we should be sitting down to discuss this. Some had asked us to when it first happened, but there did not seem be much that had not already been said. 2008 Olympic Gold Medalist Elena Dementieva was a guest on Evening Urgant – think Jimmy Fallon, but Russian – along with current Davis Cup Captain and head of all things Russian tennis, Shamil Tarpischev. Recalling a match Maria Sharapova played at the London Olympics, Urgant struggled to name her opponent before Tarpischev volunteered “Williams brothers” to the awkwardness of all involved. The late-night comedy audience was silent as Dementieva non-verbally appealed to them as if to say, “I know, right?” while Urgant inelegantly tried to reel the poor attempt at humor back onto neutral ground:
“Look at ours, our [female] tennis players, how they’re all slender and elegant – and then when [somebody like that] comes out… It’s just that… Well, a *sister* passed by me – [laughter] – we went under the tribunes, and one of the sisters passed by me, and I have huge respect for these outstanding sportswomen, but… when she went by, I was covered in shade, and only after 40 seconds the shade disappeared, all this power… Lena, wasn’t it scary to play against one of the Williams sisters?”
Dementieva shook her head and sarcastically remarked, “What could I do? You weren’t there to help me, I was all alone by myself.”
What did you think of the exchange when it first happened, and how did you feel it was being treated? Did you have an idea of how all of this was going to unfold?
Victoria Chiesa: I first became aware of the incident when I saw a translation on Twitter, but wanted to hold off passing any judgement before I saw a video. I think those two initial factors definitely played a part in the delayed reaction from a lot of people. It’s natural for people to question things that they read on social media, especially in instances where a translation is required. Nonetheless, when those reports were confirmed, I was both disappointed and unsurprised. In tennis terms, it’s upsetting when someone with such influence speaks in a way the damages the sport; while Taprischev’s comments and personal views are certainly unique to him and not reflective of the sport as a whole, the fact remains that he is one of the most powerful people in tennis, and has wielded influence in the sport for decades. The comments themselves are indefensible, and also reflect a greater worldview, and are of cultural significance. Sport certainly doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
I wasn’t surprised by the WTA’s decision to act, because they were well within their rights to do so. The WTA’s Code of Conduct governs “players, Tournament Support Personnel, Player Support Team Members and other Credentialed Persons” (pg. 261, WTA Rulebook), and as the Chairman of the Board of the Kremlin Cup, Tarpischev is subject to it.
- Tournament Obligation
Accordingly, it is an obligation for Tournament Support Personnel to refrain from engaging in conduct contrary to the integrity of the game of tennis and to ensure that Tournament partners adhere to the same standard in the activation of their partnership with the Tournament.
Conduct contrary to the integrity of the game of tennis shall include, but not be limited to, public comments, whether or not to the media, and marketing and promotional campaigns and messaging, which unreasonably attack or disparage a Tournament, sponsor, player, official or the WTA.
Violation of this Section shall subject a Tournament and/or Tournament Support Personnel to a fine of up to $5,000, and/or loss or change in membership status, and/or forfeiture of all sums, if any, previously paid to the WTA.
DK: Your semi-qualification to expect things like this put you a step ahead of the game. While fans were universally offended and upset by Tarpischev’s comments, I don’t recall hearing from anyone that he should have been (or would be) punished for making such insensitive remarks. When the WTA released its statement, I assumed it would be a standard condemnation, in which the governing body neither endorses nor condones what took place on Evening Urgant, in much the same way that the ATP stepped away from Dolgopolov’s homophobic slurs on his Instagram. What happened instead was swift as it was impressive. Where the ATP has taken much less of a hardline stance against Fabio Fognini’s persistently incendiary behavior, the WTA is sending a strong message against sexist – and borderline transphobic – behavior of any kind.
Marat Safin criticized the action as “nonsense,” believing that the WTA should be spending its time “improving its product;” yet I believe actions like this to have that exact effect. The WTA unveiled its “Strong is Beautiful” campaign in 2012, treading the always precarious balance between progressive athleticism and traditional femininity. What Tarpischev said undermines the product itself, declaring that the Williamses were “scary” to look at; the WTA’s response proves that it need not have those within its own organization belittling its strong and beautiful product.
VC: Exactly. Like I said earlier, this is a man who has been front and center in the development one of the game’s greatest superpowers of the last two decades. While Stacey Allaster has done some things that many disagree with, she deserves full kudos for acting swiftly and authoritatively in this instance. It’s one thing to distance yourself from undesirable comments; it’s another to actively disapprove and sanction whoever made them, no matter how venerable or otherwise respected they might be. It’s her job, and the job of the WTA as an organization, to protect their athletes.
Tarpischev issued a public letter of apology, stating that his “intention was to make a small joke,” but that he knows now that his comments were “inappropriate in any context.” While Safin was one of his chief defenders in Russian media, Anastasia Myskina was also quick to defend the man she succeeded as Fed Cup captain. The 2004 French Open champion called the whole thing a “misunderstanding.”
DK: It is interesting how barring Sharapova, the Russian contingent has thrown its support behind Tarpischev. Tennis Hall of Fame Nominee Yevgeny Kafelnikov inferred that the French Open champion’s time in the United States had robbed her of her knowledge of Russian humor. Indeed, the more one watches it, and gets a grasp of the translation, the back-and-forth that featured the controversial comment seemed like a poorly rehearsed comedy sketch (which, incidentally is what Andrei Chesnokov now claims is what happened). Urgant’s incorrect use of the masculine pronoun prompting Tarpischev to conjugate in kind struck me as a bizarre language joke. And perhaps the whole thing could have been excused if not for how the two explained themselves after the fact.
I must add that I take no issue with Dementieva’s response; clearly bemused by what was going on, the former No. 3 took a jab at the implication that she was at a stark physical disadvantage by saying she could have used Urgant’s protection. Perhaps she could have said more, but I found many of the criticisms levied at her to be downright hypocritical. If it’s wrong to bully one player, why is it OK to bring up how Dementieva never won a Grand Slam title, and do so in a pejorative fashion? On what is ultimately a late-night program of the lighter variety, the two-time Grand Slam finalist was quite literally caught between two people saying off-the-wall things about a sport she played her entire life; somehow, I doubt anyone else in her position would have responded better.
VC: I think the whole incident encapsulates why the WTA is so important in the context of international sport. It is both the highest-paying and highest-profile professional sport in the world for women, and throughout its history, it has led the way in terms of women’s equality. When there is discrimination directed towards female athletes, I would expect to see the organization that prides itself on being the leading voice for women in sport take action. And I was glad to be proven right.
What do you think of the incident? Was the WTA right to act as it did? Sound off in the comments!