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Tennis and Sexism in the Social Space

It’s hard to disagree that women’s tennis is the most globally transcendent women’s professional sport — along with the highest-paying. In recent years, tennis players have prominently featured on lists of the highest-paid female athletes in the world.

Coming off a difficult season by her lofty standards, Serena Williams’ march through the 2015 tournament calendar has raised the common profile of tennis significantly. Average ticket prices for the US Open women’s final (where Serena will aim to complete the calendar Grand Slam) are up 12 percent, according to Forbes from the previous year and are largely a result of the tennis legend being on the cusp of history — yet again.

Evidently, the interest in women’s tennis is there and, excitingly, is continuing to grow.

Moreso than any pro sportswomen, tennis players given a primetime spotlight for much of the world to see. Often, however, the spotlight waxes microscopic and the powerful women that many admire for their athletic aptitude are reduced to objectification or scrutiny of their womanhood. While Williams’ incredible, history-writing achievements should be the primary topic of common tennis talk in 2015, they have more often than not taken a back-burner to matters dripping of sexist connotation — however latent or overt.

Despite having equal pay as their male counterparts at the majors, women apparently do not merit the same equality in interview questions. Following her second round victory at the 2015  Australian Open, 20-year-old Eugenie Bouchard was asked in her post-match interview to give “a twirl” for the crowd to show off her new seasonal tennis dress.

“I’m fine with being asked to twirl if they ask the guys to flex their muscles and stuff,” Bouchard said in press a few days later.

But they don’t.

#twirlgate, a textbook definition of gendered double standards, was clearly this year’s Aussie Open trying to up its game from Bouchard’s 2014 “dream date” line of questioning.

Culminating after a European clay court season of dubiously sexist match scheduling at the joint ATP and WTA events was Wimbledon: a tournament marinaded so long in its own historicity that it has forsaken the flavor of progressive gender equity.

According to Carl Bialik of fivethirtyeight.com,

At Wimbledon this year, women got just 38 percent of the assignments to Centre Court and No.1 Court … That rate is different from the other Grand Slams. At the most recent editions of the Australian Open, French Open and U.S. Open, schedulers maintained balance between men’s and women’s singles on prime courts, at least by number of matches. At each event, when they were competing with men for prime court assignments, the women got between 49 percent and 54 percent of matches on the top two courts — including at least half the matches on the biggest court.

Even this week, at the joint event in Washington D.C., women get one small time slot of televised matches before the men’s matches take over. The same was memorably apparent in Madrid — as always — and Miami, where a gender-balanced slate on the Stadium Court overshadows bold inequalities of court assignment on the other televised courts.

At this year’s Wimbledon, some of the journalism that came from bordered on satire:

Q.  Heather Watson was applauded earlier this year for breaking taboo and talking about what was phrased as girly things.  How much do you think that affects other females’ players game?
PETRA KVITOVA:  To be honest, I think it’s quite tough.  Of course, I have these experiences from before.  It’s never really easy to deal with one more tough thing.  I think always the beginning of this kind of period, it’s tough.  I think that for normal woman, they know about.  If we have to play the match or training or something, it’s difficult. It’s one more extra thing for us.

Q.  Does having to wear white as well…
PETRA KVITOVA:  No, I think it’s fine.

…while some of it — stay dead forever please, grunting “debate” — got clinically shut down by Victoria Azarenka.

Given that the tournament is the crown jewel of tennis and is arguably the sports largest international platform, that the age-old and painfully tired topic of women’s grunting, blatant sexism in tournament match scheduling, and body critique of World No.1 Williams are still the hot takes of a fortnight filled with high quality and record-breaking women’s tennis is despairingly problematic.

Gendered double standards in professional sport – such as tennis, wherein the women’s and men’s events are so often publicly linked – is not a novel concept.

In spite of the relative “success” of contemporary women’s rights movements and the drive towards female empowerment in professional and public spheres of life, Diane Ponterotto’s article Trivializing the Female Body: A Cross-cultural Analysis of the Representation of Women in Sports Journalism remarks that the sexist microscope over female athletes has in fact increased (rather than decreased) over time.

Central to public critique of women’s bodies is the idea that a professional sportswoman‘s gender is considered before her status as an athlete, whereas a professional sportsman is an athlete first and foremost.

While both Bouchard and fellow Canadian Milos Raonic earned $60,000 for their second round victories at the Australian Open this year, the former’s gender tends to be more important than her athletic accomplishment — while her compatriot simply earned his paycheck and made the third round.

The Scientific Method

To further investigate the ways in which the world’s best female athletes are perceived by the general public in contrast to their male counterparts, I took to tennis’ — and the Internet’s — most popular platform for sharing viral content: YouTube.

Having navigated to the homepage — which also happens to be my own homepage #procrastinaton101 — I typed in the first and last name of each the WTA’s top three players and performed separate searches. I first searched the name of World No. 3, Simona Halep.

I filtered the results so that my search would show me, in descending order, the videos with the most views on the entire site. I repeated this process with No. 2 Maria Sharapova and, of course, No. 1 Williams.

The Analysis of Data

  • Of the top 20 viewed videos under the search “Simona Halep,” 17 of them were in relation to her appearance; a remarkable 16 of them were in relation to her breast size before she underwent a reduction surgery in 2010. All of those 16 videos were amateur camera footage or pictures of her playing junior tournaments and smaller events before her breast reduction, with an emphasis on her chest. A few of the standout video titles include “SIMONA HALEP – (before breast reduction) ROMANIAN TENNIS CHAMPION JUNIOR BEAUTY,” “Sexy girl Busty Tennis Player Simona Halep monster boobs” and “‘Great Tennis Match, But What About Your Huge Boobs.’”
  • Of those 20, there is only one video showing tennis match highlights with significance placed on the athletic achievement and outside the concern or commentary of her body. When I searched ATP World No.3 Andy Murray, the 20 top videos were primarily composed of “funny moments,” commercial advertisements, tennis highlight compilation videos and “hot shots” he has hit in his career. None referenced his physical appearance or masculinity.
  • Seven of the top 20 viewed videos with the search term “Maria Sharapova” related to her aesthetic appeal, including titles such as “maria sharapova Hot DownBlouse.wmv” and “►HD◄ Maria Sharapova’s SEXIEST fall on clay! (Warsaw 2009).” Furthermore, eight of the top 20 videos included another popular male sports figure in not just the title, but in the video as well, suggesting that Sharapova’s significance as a professional athlete is only validated by her femininity as justified or as realized by the presence of a male in the same profession.
  • Of the remaining five top 20 videos, none of them featured Sharapova’s athletic achievements. In contrast, ATP World No.2 Roger Federer saw similar top search results to Murray, including greatest shots, funny moments, and achievement compilations. None of the Top 20 most viewed Federer videos concerned his appearance.
  • Of the top 20 most viewed videos when searching “Serena Williams,” four of the videos show other tennis players imitating Williams – though not in mannerisms, but in physicality. Woven throughout a variety of commercial endorsements (of the WTA’s Top 3, Williams, interestingly, had the highest number of these), are five more videos referencing Williams’ physique, including “Serena Shakes Her Big Booty” and “Serena Williams Lacey Bikini Cool Off!” Taking a gander at the 20 next most-viewed videos reveals even more explicit titles, and only around video #38 do we find any actual tennis or match highlights.
  • ATP World No.1 Novak Djokovic’s top 20 viewed videos included zero commentary on his body. Neither did his top 40.

Drawing Conclusions

Of 60 total top-viewed videos analyzed in my research of the WTA’s top three players, 37 made reference, often explicit, to their bodies.

That’s almost two-thirds.

66 percent.

In contrast, of 60 total top-viewed videos of the ATP’s top three players, zero (read: ZERO) included any commentary on their body or masculinity.

That’s 0/0.

0 percent.

While tennis has been the gold standard for women’s in professional sports for four decades, its athletes remain unappreciated in digital and traditional media — on the world’s biggest stages and platforms — for their athletic prowess. It may be 2015, but there’s still a long way to go.

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About Jeff Donaldson (35 Articles)
Queen's University '15. Canada, eh. @jddtennis/@donaldsonjd

6 Comments on Tennis and Sexism in the Social Space

  1. John Bryan // August 8, 2015 at 6:51 pm // Reply

    lets not call “people only care about women’s tennis if its serena, a countrywoman, or the player is hot” sexism. lets call it what it is, an inferior version of the mens game, and most people prefer to watch fast-paced and exciting matches.

    Like

  2. Nick Thorne // August 8, 2015 at 11:24 pm // Reply

    will someone please rush the above person a tape of yesterday’s Kerber v Radwanska match, an electrifying, ‘fast-paced and exciting’ classic, and while I’m here, may I be the first to nominate him for the ‘Rotting Racquet of Sexism’ award.

    Like

  3. Good article about a problem that, while warranting improvement (e.g., in tournament scheduling), might not admit of a complete solution.

    The conclusions of your YouTube analysis may not represent tennis fans (or sports fans) as a whole, because the population that creates and posts YT videos is probably more likely than the population as a whole to fixate on women’s “hotness.”

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  4. This is very interesting, but it just reflects the wider feature of society, in which a woman’s looks are a more important component of how she is perceived and valued than a man’s looks. And that is because, in general and with exceptions, the world is run by men. But as far as men’s and women’s tennis goes, I think women’s tennis can be more interesting because the women tend not to have such gigantic serves, and there is more strategy.

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  5. Well it sure is an interesting topic. Did you try searching on Justine Henin videos?, I think you’d probably get more highlight tags on her than on goden-girl Sugarpova. What I think happens in women’s tennis is that most of the players can’t really outstand by their tennis more than by their looks. I mean, Nadal’s muscles were a trending topic for a while, but were his muscles bigger than his tennis?? I’d say no. On the opposite,let’s take Ana Ivanovic, she’s a pretty girl with good looks and she was playing well for a while. But only for a while, not anymore, and she never achieved something compared to what Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, or even Ferrer were/are doing. Which leads to the fact that there is a big lack of consistency with most of the woman players, except for S. Williams who apparently is unbeatable now with no one to really put her on a test. So when you don’t offer much tennis to talk about, people find other stuff to talk about be it looks, behaviour, personal life etc.

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