We were supposed to wrap it up in a little box and put a bow on it.
All the controversy in tennis was supposed to be over.
In triumph, Serena Williams came back to Indian Wells last year. A beaming Venus returned this year. Now Serena had reached the final against Vika Azarenka. After 15 years, said tournament director Ray Moore, “This is the final brick in the wall…Serena’s come full circle.” She didn’t win the final, but the chapter was closed on a controversy that had simmered longer than any other tennis dust-up.
But as one controversy – linked to race – was closed, another one – linked to gender – opened. Never in the history of the game had we seen such a flurry of trauma and drama as we have over the past eight weeks. A gambling controversy rocked the Aussie Open. The game’s greatest chronicler, Bud Collins, died. Our most glamorous female star was humbled. That was enough – right? Nothing else could explode– especially at the bland breakfast press gathering that is held each year at the BNP Paribas Open.
Here, the scrambled eggs are always fine, and the coffee’s strong. In the past, hot topics considered at the breakfast included the capacity of assorted parking lots and the rules of fire marshals.
Typically, Moore began to talk about the new shade of green of the stadium’s seats, the lack of nearby hotel rooms, and the need for more toilets and concession stands.
But this is tennis’ year of upset. The game cannot avoid tumult, and when a New Zealand broadcaster who doubles as a press officer for the Shanghai Masters asked a question in hopes of getting a good Shanghai quote, Moore jumped ship.
Inexplicably, out of nowhere, Raymond pivoted and offered one of the most stunning comments by a tennis official since ITF Chief Phillipe Chartrier said, in 1982, that Africans were good athletes, but would have problems becoming great tennis players.
Moore said, “You know, in my next life when I come back I want to be someone in the WTA, (laughter) 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. They really have.”
Moore later apologized, telling Inside Tennis that it was “a lame effort at making a joke.” He added that he felt men players should also get down on their knees to Federer and Nadal.
Nonetheless, the comment created a firestorm. Some referenced the controversial former head of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, who said women soccer players should “play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball…They could, for example, have tighter shorts.”
Of course, there have been plenty of sexist remarks in tennis. Let’s not even talk about Bobby Riggs. In 1987, Aussie macho man Pat Cash claimed, “Women’s tennis is two sets of rubbish that last only half an hour. It’s robbing men’s tennis. The spectators who turn up at events like Wimbledon really come to see the men play.”
Dutchman Richard Krajicek said, “I may be exaggerating a bit when I said that 80 percent of the top 100 women are lazy, fat pigs. What I meant to say was 75 percent of the top 100 women are fat pigs.”
To be fair, Moore is a fabulous man who fought alongside Arthur Ashe to counter apartheid. He’s beloved around here for shepherding the Indian Wells tournament, which so brilliantly showcases women’s tennis. On court today, he told Serena how pleased he was that she had had the courage to return to the tournament, and spoke of his pleasure at seeing Venus return. And, in his morning press breakfast he noted that “the WTA have a handful – not just one or two – but a handful of very attractive prospects that can assume the mantle. You know [Garbine] Muguruza, Genie Bouchard. They have a lot of very attractive players. And the standard in ladies’ tennis has improved unbelievably.”
But it was almost unbelievable – perhaps perplexing and troubling are better words – that such an experienced and thoughtful man made such a demeaning comment, belittling powerful, accomplished women.
Serena offered a stinging response: “Obviously I don’t think any women should be down on their knees thanking anybody like that…[So] many people say they don’t watch tennis unless they’re watching myself or my sister…There are a lot of women out there who are…very exciting to watch…There are a lot of men out there who are exciting to watch. It definitely goes both ways. Those remarks are very much mistaken and very, very, very inaccurate.”
Asked if Moore might have been misconstrued, Serena said, “Well, if you read the transcript you can only interpret it one way. I speak very good English. I’m sure he does, too. There’s only one way to interpret that. Get on your knees, which is offensive enough, and [then to say we should] thank a man…we, as women, have come a long way. We shouldn’t have to drop to our knees at any point.”
Serena added, “Last year, the women’s final at the US Open sold out well before the men’s…To make a comment you have to have history…and to know things…Look at someone like Billie Jean King, who opened so many doors for…women athletes. So…[it]is such a disservice to her and…every woman on this planet, [who] has ever tried to stand up for what [she] believed in and…[tried to be] proud to be a woman.”
On ESPN, Pat McEnroe went even further, saying he was “livid,” adding that Moore’s comments were unacceptable and he should step down as the head of the tournament.
Ironically, the woman’s final – with its many power rallies – was more compelling than Novak Djokovic’s straightforward win over big-hitting Milos Raonic. “Same old, same old,” muttered one reporter.
After his win, Djokovic waffled on whether there should be equal prize money in tennis – a major achievement of the WTA. He said there are stats which show that men’s tennis is more popular and that each gender should seek whatever prize money it can. He conceded that tennis is a sport which at every level brings men and women together and that he wouldn’t be where he was without the woman, Jelena Gencic, who discovered him and first coached him in a remote Se mountain village.
Still, Novak cooked up a verbal stew talking about how women have different bodies, how “they have to go through a lot of different things that we don’t have to go through… The hormones and different stuff…Ladies know what I’m talking about.” A bit patronizingly, he said he respected women for being able “to fight for at such a high level…They kind of have to sacrifice for certain periods of time”. He said that Moore’s words were “not politically correct. I mean, it was maybe exaggerated a little bit.” He finally added that he was all for “woman power.”
But what about the creator of woman power in tennis – Billie Jean King? The tennis feminist whom Bud Collins called ‘Mother Freedom” said she was “disappointed in Moore’s comments. He is wrong on so many levels. Every player, especially the top players, contribute to our success.”
Stanford grad Nicole Gibbs, who reached the fourth round here, wasn’t so measured. Reporter Courtney Nguyen tweeted that “these aren’t isolated opinions. Misogyny, sexism in tennis is very real & the women fight it every f****** day…Serena and Vika showed a hell of a lot of class on court today. Remember that.”
Tennis observers couldn’t believe what had just come down – the breakfast bombshell. They left Indian Wells as yet another controversy swept over the sport. As today’s women’s final, which attracted a huge crowd, grew tight and compelling, a pharmacist from Santa Barbara said, “Women’s tennis is like their old saying, ‘You’ve come a long way baby.’”
But one had to think: maybe not.
In the end, perhaps it was champion Azarenka who was most poignant. The Belarus native said, “We have to work through as women. Men don’t get those comments. I don’t want to address or insult anybody like we got a little bit…I don’t understand any man comment[ing] in general towards women, because as simple as that, every single person on earth was brought and was born by a woman, right?…Through the years the comments [on my] grunting…I could give less of s–t about it.
“I’m not gonna bring somebody down. I’m just gonna rise above that.
“Today, it was a great day for women’s sport…Why can’t we just be happy and enjoy and support each other, because that’s what the world is missing a little bit. It’s the support towards each other. Not just bashing [or asking] who is prettier or who is this, who has more, who has less. Let’s just take care of each other.”