Madrid Open: A Tournament Mired in Controversy

The Madrid Open has been overshadowed by allegations of sexism and gender inequality. The world's top female tennis players have voiced their outrage.

“I don’t know what century everyone was living in when they made that decision or had a conversation and decided, like, ‘Wow, this is a great decision and there’s going to be no backlash.'”

Two days after WTA world no. 3 Jessica Pegula and her doubles partner Coco Gauff had lost the doubles final at the Madrid Open, the disappointment and anger was still all too present. The result, however, had nothing to do with it. After the trophies were handed out to the winning pair of Victoria Azarenka and Beatriz Haddad-Maia as well as the runners-up Gauff and Pegula, the players were waiting for their customary victory speeches.

They smiled and held their trophies in front of assembled photographers, but there was not a microphone in sight. Pegula said she felt tension behind the scenes throughout a controversial tournament in Madrid and “had a feeling something would happen.” She did not, however, anticipate the organisers refusing to allow the players to address the crowd.

A dangerous precedent

“I’ve never heard in my life we wouldn’t be able to speak,” Pegula said at her press conference ahead of this week’s Rome tournament. “It spoke for itself. We were upset when it happened and told during the ceremony that we weren’t able to speak, it kind of proved a point.” The consequences of the tournament’s decision to deny both women’s doubles finalists a speech during the trophy ceremony rumbled on as world no. 5 Coco Gauff expressed frustration about tournament organisers silencing players.

For Gauff, the incident sets a dangerous precedent for the future. “I have a lot of finals, so it’s not about that,” she told reporters. “It’s more about the principle behind it, so this can’t happen again for future girls, taking the opportunity away from them.”

It is understood that WTA representatives were informed of the decision to deny the players from taking the mic only midway through the doubles final, leaving no opportunity to react. Meanwhile, the finalists of the men’s doubles and both singles tournaments were all given the opportunity to speak after their respective matches. While tournament organizers have given no indication as to why the four female players were muted, the events on Sunday had been preceded by serious allegations of sexism and gender inequality throughout the two-week event. Part of the criticism was the discrepancy in the size of cakes handed out to the male and female singles winners.

Belarus-born Aryna Sabalenka was given a single-tier cake after winning the women’s final, while men’s singles winner Carlos Alcaraz was given a multi-tier cake that had to be held up by several people for a photo opportunity. Fans and players were left fuming over the optics of the two photos displayed, leaving many to call out the tournament for being misogynistic.

Ball girl controversy

Two-time grand slam champion Azarenka took to Twitter after the incident, implying that the different cake sizes reflected the tournament’s treatment of the respective genders. “Couldn’t be more accurate on the treatment,” she wrote. The Madrid Open, widely regarded as one of the most important and prestigious tournaments outside of the four grand slams, created further negative headlines with their controversial decision to replace ball kids with models wearing revealing and feminising outfits.

The event assigned all-female ball crews to men’s matches played on the grandstand court, with the uniforms featuring short, pleated skirts and crop tops, while younger girls and boys wore more traditional attire when stationed on the outside courts. Fans had previously noted that there appeared to be two different variations of the ball kids’ outfit, one which saw the girls don the often labelled “sexist” outfits and another more standard selection of a shirt and shorts, worn by both the ball boys and the younger girls for mostly women’s matches.

A form of sexist violence

Spain’s Secretary of State for Equality, Soledad Murillo, has criticised the tournament directors, saying the introduction of models “contributes to fomenting clear discrimination towards women, who appear as simple objects of decoration and amusement.” A spokesperson for the Spanish Association for Women in Professional Sport, Pilar Calvino, said of the dress code: “Ultimately, it’s a form of sexist violence that is so widespread that people don’t even notice it.

Following the backlash, the outfits were changed for the men’s final between Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz and Germany’s Jan-Lennard Struff, with the ball girls instead wearing three-quarter-length skirts as they worked the match.

Pegula, who is a member of the WTA Player’s Council, hopes the events at this year’s Madrid Open won’t happen again. “There had been a lot of drama in Madrid this year on a variety of different things, there was a lot of tension and it got worse,” she said. “Out of all the drama the end goal is to figure our solutions. This cannot happen again — it needs to be changed.”

This article was originally published on DW.