“Serena is a powerful reason for equality”

Ray Moore’s controversial comments on women’s tennis have brought the debate about equal pay in sport back into the spotlight. In an attempt to be even-handed, The Mixed Zone publishes both sides of the argument, co-incidentally from two former British Olympic badminton players. Here, Sarah Egelstaff argues that the sexes should be paid the same; CLICK HERE to read Gail Emms’s counter-argument

It may be 2016 but let’s not have any illusions that sexism has been eradicated. The comments of Ray Moore, the CEO of the Indian Wells tennis tournament, have, quite rightly, generated quite a storm. Moore claimed that female players are riding on the coattails of the men. “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,” he said. There is just so much wrong in that one sentence.

The backlash was immediate: from Billie Jean King, who said that she was “disappointed” and that Moore was wrong, to Martina Navratilova, who said that she would not be surprised if female players boycott the Indian Wells tournament if Moore stays in the post. But the best rebuttal came from Serena Williams, who further enhanced her reputation as not only one of the most valuable assets that women’s tennis has ever had, but tennis as a whole. When questioned about Moore’s comments in her post-match press conference, she said: “Get on your knees, which is offensive enough, and thank a man – we, as women, have come a long way, we shouldn’t have to drop to our knees at any point.”

Williams then added: “This is such a disservice to her [Billie Jean King] and every female, not only female athletes but every woman on this planet that has ever tried to stand up for what they believe in and be proud to be a woman.”

Well said, Serena. To suggest that women’s tennis has almost no value at all when we are witnessing the rise and rise of the greatest female player ever to have picked up a tennis racket, is nothing short of preposterous. It is true that the big four in men’s tennis are, currently, a huge draw. But go further down the rankings and the male players that you come across do not exactly have people queuing round the block for a ticket to their matches.

Contrast this with Williams who has brought more to the sporting landscape than 99.9 per cent of male athletes. Williams’s story is well documented: she grew up in Compton, Los Angeles, where she and sister Venus trained in a notorious gang-land and drug-dealing area, on a court which was cracked, pot-holed, with a ripped net. As an adult, Williams had to deal with the death of her older sister, Yetunde, who was shot dead in 2003. Then she had to fight blood clots on her lungs which almost killed her. So, it is safe to say that she is no stranger to adversity.

And this is why the sexist attitudes that still pervade sport should be well and truly redundant by now. Williams is a far more interesting, marketable and impressive individual than the vast majority of male athletes. Williams has changed the course of women’s sport since she burst on the scene by winning her maiden grand slam title at the US Open in 1999. The most obvious impact she has had is to be a hugely visible black player in a tennis bubble which has been, and still is to a large extent, greatly white-washed. Players like Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens have cited the presence of Williams and her sister as massively influential in forming their belief that becoming a professional tennis player could be a viable career path for them.

Williams has also altered the way that female athlete’s bodies are viewed. The 34-year-old is supremely athletic, and as a result has been on the receiving end of various torrents of abuse for looking overly muscular or masculine. A couple of years ago, when Shamil Tarpischev, President of the Russian Tennis Federation, called Williams and her sister “the Williams brothers”, the issue of female athletes still being judged on their appearance was highlighted. Because God forbid that a woman looks anything other than dainty and stick-thin. But Williams has done more than anyone else on the planet to show young girls that being fit and athletic is infinitely preferable to being unhealthy and skinny. Williams has unapologetically showcased her body as a tool that she used to win tennis matches rather than something to be objectified.

As Williams said in her reply to Moore’s misogynistic comments, tickets for the women’s final of the US Open last year sold out faster than those for the men’s final. For almost the whole of 2015, Williams was the pre-eminent story in tennis. She was going for the calendar grand slam which is something that happens once in a generation if you’re lucky. In the end, she did not manage it, but she still stole the headlines.

Any individual’s sporting preferences are, undeniably, subjective. Some will prefer to watch the men’s tour while other will prefer the women’s. All sports go in cycles, though, and while the current big four in men’s tennis have provided a golden period for the sport, it remains debatable as to whether any men’s tennis player has changed attitudes and perceptions as much as Williams has. Whichever side of the fence you sit, you can’t deny her influence on sport.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

This article was written by Susan Egelstaff.   Susan’s latest articles.

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