It’s about equality, stupid

Published: Tue, 03/22/2016 - 12:31 Updated: Tue, 03/22/2016 - 12:50

Raymond Moore and Novak Djokovic have done themselves, the men in tennis and the debate about equality no favours by raking up the gender divide at Indian Wells

Dhruba Basu Delhi 

Raymond Moore clearly resents the Women’s Tennis Association. On the surface of it, this may not strike the lay sports viewer or tennis follower as a sentiment worth caring about. However context is everything. 

Raymond Moore is a former Davis Cup-winning South African tennis player. He was also the founder and CEO of the largest event in international tennis outside of the four Slams, namely the BNP Paribas Open (as the Indian Wells Masters has been known since 2009). Until he resigned. 

At a media breakfast that was held before the women’s and men’s finals at Indian Wells on Sunday, March 20, Moore responded to a question about the WTA by throwing political correctness out of the window. The exact question touched on was whether Moore was working towards elevating the event status of the women’s leg of the tournament, as he had mentioned that he was in talks about the same with the Association of Tennis Professionals (which only represents the interests of male tennis professionals). 

The answer touched a lot of raw nerves.

Moore said, among other things, ‘You know, in my next life when I come back I want to be someone in the WTA, because they ride on the coattails of the men. They don't make any decisions and they are lucky. They are very, very lucky. If I was a lady player, I'd go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport. ... And now the mantle is being handed over to Djokovic and Murray and some others.’ 

If I was a lady player, I'd go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport

It is obviously problematic for a man occupying Moore’s position to employ rhetoric evocative of evenings with the lads to explicitly legitimise the notion that women have not contributed to tennis. In terms of tactlessness, the suggestion that ‘lady players’ should go down on their knees shares rarefied air with other high (read ‘low’) points in sport like Tony Greig’s stated determination to make the West Indian cricket team ‘grovel’ on their 1976 tour of England. During a discussion about the quality of Serena Williams’ competition in the women’s tour in the wake of the provisional ban on Maria Sharapova, Moore was asked to clarify his opinion that ‘they have very attractive players.’ It was a dicey question, in that it made him choose between the interpretive options ‘physically attractive’ and ‘competitively attractive’. It is, however, precisely this point that Moore would have done well to reflect on before answering, ‘I mean both.’ 

Why would he mean ‘physically attractive’? Would he have even used the word ‘attractive’ in a discussion about the men’s tour?The backlash predictably and rapidly mounted. Former World No 1’s Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and Chris Evert, US Tennis Association President Katrina Adam, WTA CEO Steve Simon, and ATP President Chris Kermode were among the heavyweights who expressed their disappointment, as were three of the four singles finalists at the event, Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka (who won, making it her second Indian Wells title), and Novak Djokovic (the men’s champion, beating Milos Raonic and taking the title for a record-breaking sixth time and a record-equalling third consecutive time). 

Djokovic declared his support for ‘women power’ and his recognition of Moore’s ‘political incorrectness’, but, in a surprise, fire-fuelling twist, undermined his stand completely by asserting that ‘the stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men’s tennis matches . . . [and therefore] maybe we should get awarded more’. He followed that up by connecting his ‘tremendous respect’ for women in sport to the hormonal challenges they face and the family time they sacrifice for it. There are a number of things to examine here, and none of them makes Djokovic look good. At the purely philosophical level, the belief that drawing more spectators entitles players to more prize money (rather than more endorsements) is founded on the belief that those that draw more spectators are doing more; there cannot be any other reason to deserve more. 

In effect, Djokovic is saying that, even though women have to wade through all those hormones and turn deaf ears and blind eyes to the wailing of neglected families, by supposedly drawing a higher viewership men in tennis do more for the sport. How much of a stretch would it be to see this position as one that is in tacit agreement with a watered-down version of Moore’s claim? 

Tennis should be proud of how its women players have fought for their right to be paid and regarded equally for the equal value of their work. Djokovic should be proud of this distinction. In the historic struggle to level the playing field for the sexes, as it were, his is not a positive contribution

It takes the best of 5 sets in a Grand Slam to decide a men’s singles match while the corresponding number is 3 for women; by this logic, men are doing more. However, the real question according to Djokovic is: will increasing the number of sets in a women’s match increase viewership? If it doesn’t, women will have failed the Djokovic Test; regardless of the extra burden of cysts and babies, regardless of whether they went back to playing in corsets (as they had to do for the first 50 years of their involvement at Wimbledon), they still won’t be doing enough to demand the same pay. 

And if the ratings dip for some reason, what then? Reduce the amount? Disincentivise women’s tennis across the board? Pick only ‘physically attractive’ players to pander to constructed viewership demands? 

Djokovic didn’t say or mean any of this, but it goes to show that his logic doesn’t work and throws into relief how regressive and petty it is to push for gender-based pay differentials, especially in the most financially female-friendly sport in the world. Women are paid more in tennis than in any other sport, and have been paid the same amount as men at all the Slams (and many of the Masters, including Indian Wells) since 2007, when Wimbledon became the last one to establish pay parity after Venus Williams’ powerful letter of resentment. The first was the US Open, which Billie Jean King threatened to boycott in 1973 on account of having received only 40% of her male counterpart Ilie Nastase’s prize money the previous year. 

Tennis should be proud of how its women players have fought for their right to be paid and regarded equally for the equal value of their work. Djokovic should be proud of this distinction. In the historic struggle to level the playing field for the sexes, as it were, his is not a positive contribution. It also runs into a quagmire when faced with statistics like those of the US Open singles finals in 2013 and 2014, both of which saw higher ratings for the women’s contest than for the men’s. Should the women have got more money than the men, as they briefly did at the Australian Open during the 1980s? 

Athletes are paid for winning, for almost winning and for competing. These are the sporting criteria that separate different categories of award money. Viewership is a commercial criterion, on the basis of which an event’s sponsors will decide how much they are willing to part with, over and above the minimum, set by players’ associations. Djokovic’s words were for the sponsors, not the sport. And that is a shame, because he is a sportsman. His words were for the men, not the women. And that is a shame, because he is a human. 

There are a number of things to examine here, and none of them makes Djokovic look good. At the purely philosophical level, the belief that drawing more spectators entitles players to more prize money (rather than more endorsements) is founded on the belief that those that draw more spectators are doing more

The debate sparked by Moore’s statements must be taken seriously by anyone interested in sports, gender equality and the issues that lie largely ignored at their intersection points. It is not a new debate. The central issue is whether sport is to be seen as perpetuating a system in which the woman is cast as the man’s inferior, or a platform for the emancipation and empowerment of women. 

The choice is, in other words, between moving forward and moving backward, and Djokovic, the golden boy of tennis, needs to make a more informed choice. 

Raymond Moore and Novak Djokovic have done themselves, the men in tennis and the debate about equality no favours by raking up the gender divide at Indian Wells
Dhruba Basu Delhi 

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