Djokovic’s Comments on Women’s Tennis Reek of Male Privilege in Sport

It’s 2016 and women are still battling for equality everywhere. The debate on whether women should play five sets at Grand Slams is another example of hegemonic masculinity rearing its ugly head.

Surely you're joking, Novak? Djokovic at a tournament in 2011. Credit: jiteshjagadish/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Surely you’re joking, Novak? Djokovic at a tournament in 2011. Credit: jiteshjagadish/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

After hitting marvellous backhands all these years, this was one Novak Djokovic got wrong, with a backhanded compliment that lacked his measured approach. “I’m completely for women power,” claimed Djokovic toward the end of his controversial press conference. It’s tough to be sure of that.

For what had gone before had painted the men’s world number one player in a very different light. Djokovic had questioned the assumptions behind equal prize money for men and women by claiming that men’s tennis deserves more on account of its greater popularity. It was the kind of talk one would hear in boardroom meetings of corporate companies seeking to maximise profit. Perhaps Djokovic has been spending too much time with executives lately.

His comments were in response to the appalling statements released by Ray Moore, CEO of the tournament Djokovic won on March 20. Moore wanted women to drop to their… No, let’s admire this work of art as it was rendered the first time. “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. They really have.” There’s a reason why Moore is not a ‘lady player’. Because if he was one, he would be spending his nights playing matches or training or doing something better than what he suggested.

Now, Moore claimed that Federer and Nadal have carried the sport. Surprisingly, Djokovic took no offence to that. His 11 Grand Slam titles seemed to carry little value for Moore. Djokovic, however, did find Moore’s comments on women players “politically incorrect.” It would be wrong to paint the Serbian player’s views with the same brush. They were a disaster.

Djokovic needn’t worry, though. Equal pay is limited to the Grand Slams and a few other tournaments. In 2014, when Djokovic and Serena Williams won three Slams each, the Serb earned nearly $5 million more than his female counterpart in prize money. Williams, who is often characterised as ‘arrogant’, responded to Moore’s comments in the right tone.

“Last year the women’s final at the US Open sold out well before the men. I’m sorry, did Roger play in that final or Rafa or any man play in a final that was sold out before the men’s final? I think not. There’s only one way to interpret that. Get on your knees, which is offensive enough, and thank a man, which is not – we, as women, have come a long way. We shouldn’t have to drop to our knees at any point.”

The characterisation of Serena as arrogant is itself reflective of the inherently sexist attitudes with which people come to view female players. Here’s a player on the cusp of historic success and she has had to suffer abuse from spectators who don’t hesitate in calling her a ‘man’. Her powerful brand of tennis doesn’t sit easy with such ‘fans’. When players like Latvia’s Ernests Gulbis or some others have engaged in brash conduct, they are termed ‘characters’.

Another argument used to put Serena down is that women’s tennis is inferior as there are no challengers to her crown. This was certainly true in the times of the Roger-Rafa rivalry or the duo’s battles with Djokovic. Currently, though, the Serb is by far the best player in the world. He maintains a strong hold on the number one ranking and has won four of the last five Slams. Not to forget, before Rafa challenged Federer, the Swiss legend was thoroughly dominating men’s tennis. Back then, paeans were being sung for Federer. Nobody made an argument for the then highly competitive women’s circuit to be rewarded more because men’s tennis was boring.

Such selective reasoning on Djokovic’s part reeks of male privilege in sport. It’s 2016 and women are still battling for equality everywhere, not just sport. The debate on whether women should play five sets at Grand Slams is another example of hegemonic masculinity rearing its ugly head.

Men’s Grand Slam matches draw part of their appeal from the fact that they are played over five sets. It’s seen as virtuous to play long contests that punish the body and the mind. It’s about who can fight longer and outsmart their opponent. The ability to withstand a physically brutal contest is valued highly. The emphasis on the body is such that players who can win these matches are considered strong, both physically and mentally. The argument implicitly claims that those who cannot are lacking in some manner.

This has direct implication for women’s tennis. Because they play best-of-three sets matches, it has become common for some within the tennis fraternity to question whether women are fit to play the longer format. On Sunday, in his misguided attempt to praise female players, Djokovic said, “Their bodies are much different to men’s bodies. They have to go through a lot of different things that we don’t have to go through. You know, the hormones and different stuff, we don’t need to go into details.”

No, let’s go into the details. There’s nothing that stops women from playing five sets. From 1984 to 1998, the year-end WTA finals were organised as best-of-five contests. To be clear, Djokovic did not question whether women are fit to play five sets. But players like France’s Gilles Simon have rejected the idea of equal pay on the basis that women play fewer sets.

Some female players have responded by saying that they are ready to match the men’s format. However, if that happens, it won’t necessarily resolve the equality debate. Women don’t need to justify their position by emulating men. Women’s tennis is in no way an inferior product because players engage in best-of-three contests. A celebration of difference should guide our appreciation of women’s sport. The need to compare their efforts with those of the male players does not dissolve the hierarchy.

Since five sets have become the standard for excellence, it might seem ridiculous to wonder why men are not asked to play best-of-three sets instead. This is not to say five setters don’t bring value to the sport. Spectators usually seem to enjoy them. But our sporting world view is male-dominated to such an extent that female players’ achievements are never seen as the gold standard in any sport.

Since women are treated as second-class citizens in sport, it might be more realistic to first end the debate over whether women should play five sets. If the Australian Open final earlier this year is anything to go by, three-set encounters can produce matches that will live long in the memory.

The solutions, thankfully, may arrive from within tennis. After reaching the 2015 Australian Open final, Andy Murray had words of praise for his coach Amelie Mauresmo. A lot of people criticised me for working with her and I think so far this week we have showed women can be very good coaches as well.” Now, that might seem a very obvious thing to say. But the absence of female coaches at the top end of men’s tennis made Murray emphasise the point. He has taken the lead in promoting equality in tennis. For an elite player to take this stand is laudable; Djokovic may win finals against Murray but there are other things he should learn from his Scottish counterpart.

Mauresmo’s successful stint with Murray has challenged stereotypes. Ironically, Djokovic’s first coach was a woman too. But his ill-advised foray into the equality debate is reflective of the financial system that guides conventional wisdom in the multi-billion-dollar tennis industry. Capitalist forces are often guided by sheer numbers; however, it is not the smartest way to go about planning a sport’s future as we have seen in numerous cases. If popularity became the sole factor, tennis seasons would be longer, matches would be shorter and several rule changes could come into play that would distort the natural qualities of the sport. Djokovic would probably not want a season that will involve multiple competitions like the exhibition tournament International Premier Tennis League (IPTL).

Tennis, for long a ‘clean’ sport, has taken a battering to its image in recent months. Players have been accused of fixing matches, Maria Sharapova got embroiled in a doping issue and now the men’s best player aired sexist opinions. Perhaps the sudden change in the sport’s fortunes should have been expected as these issues had simmered below the surface for quite some time.

Women’s tennis players are generally expected to be ‘graceful’; Serena doesn’t fit the stereotype, so she allegedly invites derision. Female tennis players are often seen as tabloid news fodder because they are considered ‘attractive’, many times at the expense of any discussion involving their playing abilities. Loaded terms like graceful and attractive point to the problematic history of tennis. Women earned the right to play tennis much before many other sports. Wimbledon was the first tournament which allowed women to play tennis back in 1884 (curiously, it was the last of the Grand Slams to award equal prize money to female players). It has been argued that women were permitted to play tennis because it did not challenge the established cultural image of women. Playing in corsets harmed their bodies but a change of attire was not discussed in those times.

Yet, 89 years later, tennis became the first sport to pay women equal prize money at that year’s US Open. This was probably the highest point of the movement for equality led by American great Billie Jean King. Since then, many sports have followed tennis’s lead.

This is the history that tennis needs to learn from. A progressive movement that has made major gains for decades needs to be alive to the threats that remain within the sport. Ray Moore was forced to apologise hours after his distasteful comments. Public shaming is a useful weapon to have in this case. In a world where women are still fighting for their basic rights, it’s Djokovic’s responsibility to develop a nuanced understanding of the issues. Until he demonstrates the willingness to do so, it’s our responsibility to keep calling him out on his views.