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Playing Out Loud: How Sexism Is Stifling Tennis

July 1, 2011

Inspired by a particulary nasty, sexist, article, A_Gallivant (@A_Gallivant on Twitter) wrote the following piece. I completely agree with her words and am honoured to post it on Any Given Surface.


In 1996 – NIKE Women created a commercial with the following copy:

If you let me play sports
I will like myself more,
I will have more self-confidence,
I will be 60 percent less likely to get breast cancer,
I will suffer less depression.
I will be more likely to leave a man who beats me.
I will be less likely to get pregnant,
I will learn what it means to be strong.
If you let me play sports

I read this article today and I immediately remembered this advertising campaign. At the time, when watching the ad I was drawn to the girls’ diverse faces. I heard their words and wondered if the ad’s claims about the power of sport were true. In the end, I decided even if they weren’t, if girls wanted to play sport, why shouldn’t they? Today as I re-watch the ad, I am drawn to a tiny word, ‘let.’ Are these little girls asking their parents to let them play, or are they asking the world? If it’s the former, it’s sweet and cute, but if it’s the world, it’s revolutionary. They are pleading to the world, to us, to let them be more than society dictates. They want to:

Stop hating themselves
Stop being insecure
Stop being sick
Stop being depressed
Stop being in abusive relationships
Stop being weak.

However, these girls’ pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Every time a Grand Slam comes around, people crawl out of the woodwork to critique the women’s game. Do they talk about strategy, shot selection, or the depth of the field? No, like Ms. Gold, they talk about clothing, behavior, and grunting.

It’s dismissive, reductive, and paternalistic.

People who have the opportunity to talk about women in sport and influence a global audience shouldn’t spend precious time critiquing whether Venus looks like she’s at a disco or what a possible final between Azarenka and Sharapova would sound like. It is a moment to inform and inspire. Sadly, any young girl listening to these people learns that it doesn’t matter how she plays; all that matters is how she looks, sounds, and behaves. Not how, where, or why she strikes the ball.

What these articles fail to understand is that while their critiques may seem silly and off-the-cuff to the ardent and more knowledgeable fan, it suggests to a novice watcher that what the women are doing on court – playing tennis – is inconsequential and meaningless. Yes, we ‘let’ the women play sports, but we don’t take them seriously or allow champions to have centre stage. Imagine if John McEnroe and Ted Robinson were to discuss Rafa’s anal picking, fist-pumping, and wail? If they spent time talking about Roger’s tucking back of his hair, twisting his racket, or his preening strut? God forbid, they spend a minute talking about the men’s respective clothing! But entire articles are written and segments are produced about the women’s court ticks and habits. It’s preposterous and I’m calling fault!

To suggest that women should wear fashions that are modest and uncontroversial. To recommend they play silently, and play nicely. To call them out for showing any kind of personality on the tennis court. To let them play – yes – but then take away all individuality and personality from their game, this goes against everything we value: equality, freedom of expression, and free will.

The Nike Ad wasn’t just suggesting that you allow girls to play sports, it was asking you, the audience, for something finer and more subtle: to look beyond their appearance and attend to what they are doing.

It was to allow them to sweat, scream, and play. 

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Deborah permalink
    July 1, 2011 3:29 pm

    Well done! I have a triathalon participating daughter and thank goodness she hasn’t let these messages stop her. We have to redouble our efforts to counter the sexist and regressive attitudes. Thanks for doing just that!

  2. TennisAce permalink
    July 1, 2011 4:20 pm

    Fantastic and I could not have said it better myself. We need more people like this to defend women’s sports in general and women’s tennis in particular. I am particularly saddened that with so many former champions in the television booth, they seem to have joined the list of those who prefer to criticise the women’s game rather than use the platform that they have to say what is good about women’s tennis.

    What is even more infuriating is that the women themselves have the power to stop this nonsense. Can you imagine if people were criticising the men’s game in the way that journalists are criticising the women’s game. They would be called on it. I have seen people like Federer and Roddick defend each other’s career and defend men’s tennis for all they are worth. They stare down the press and defend their colleagues.

    I would have preferred if when the women had been asked the question, they would have taken a stand and defend their right to grunt as loudly as they want. Instead they took the opportunity to sidestep the issue and apologise for it.

    I hope many other fans of women’s tennis really do call the media on this. It is about time this one-sided coverage of women’s tennis stops.

    • A_Gallivant permalink
      July 1, 2011 7:24 pm

      I agree about the women needing to do a better job of defending themselves. That’s why I appreciated Vika who started to laugh about it and say that when she plays, it’s gonna get loud. I am happy she’s starting to embrace it and thank God Maria seems to care very little about where they want to slot her.

  3. Morgan permalink
    July 2, 2011 1:20 am

    Thanks a million for this. I’m so tired of reading flippant articles about what the ladies wear that don’t even mention a given match. I don’t know anything about how the WTA is organized, but evidently they don’t have a players’ council that is as powerful as the ATP’s.

  4. Imtotallyrad permalink
    July 5, 2011 2:59 pm

    I hate the way WTA is treated almost as if its a support act to the “real” tennis that is only played by men. Without fail every WTA game you watch (no matter who is playing) the main topics for discussion will follow a very similar path either: What the player is wearing. What noises she is making. What make-up/clothing brand advertisement she recently appeared. Who she is/isn’t dating.
    All of the above of course have nothing what so ever to do with the players ability.
    Never do you hear the commentators “ooh” and “ahh” and use sickening amounts of hyperbole over a shot that a women makes, like they do during any given mens match.
    The importance placed on the women players appearances is disgusting as well. There will be entire articles dedicated to what a particular player was wearing…but nothing about how she played, if i was going to a fashion show I would be extremely interested in what people were wearing, but if im going to a tennis match..odds are im there because im interested in the game not the clothes! Marion Bartoli (while not one of my personal favorites) has been copping an awful lot of criticism because of her appearance and her manner/personality…sure shes not a plastic fantastic blonde barbie and she *shock horror* doesn’t even have proper sponsor!! =O but guess what? She’s ranked number 9 in the world…and she got there by playing tennis, not by being a pinup,not by her clothing,not by who she is/isnt dating but by determination and hard work!

    There needs to be a lot more importance placed on the actual talent of the player and a lot less on superficial exterior of them.


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