There’s always banter in tennis press rooms, and just minutes after the infamous “Breakfast With Raymond” press conference ended, I got into a squabble with a leading East Coast tennis journalist.
I had muttered that Ray Moore’s repugnant “They should get down on their knees” comment was a product of the same mindset that kept Serena and Venus away from Indian Wells for years.
She laughed in my face and said, “You think sexism had something to do with the Williams not coming here?”
“Yes, absolutely,” I replied. After all, the male leaders of the BNP Paribas Open, who incredibly did so much on so many fronts, didn’t intervene when a young 19-year-old female was harassed for over two hours by numerous members of the huge crowd. And over the years the tournament leaders didn’t go out of their way to reach out to the Williamses and say, “No matter what occurred, you are great young women athletes, so we’ll do anything we can to get you back here.” Their attitude for 13 years was, “Well, if you want to come back it will be fine. But we won’t do anything special to address the abusive situation that occurred and encourage you to come back.”
The reporter laughed even more heartily.
Tennis has long been, by a vast margin, the most successful women’s sport. What other game has produced more courageous leaders? Alice Marble, Althea Gibson, Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals and Serena and Venus all crafted a singular legacy. Yet, sexism has been a constant in the game. Start wherever you want. For eons, Wimbledon prohibited women from being members of the All-England Club. They even said that ball girls would never work on Centre Court. When prize money finally came to the game, men got ten times more than women – sometimes more.
Bobby Riggs blithely offered a dicey string of sexist barbs. He said, “If I am to be a chauvinist pig, I want to be the the number one chauvinist pig.” Then there’s his quip that predates Moore’s “down on their knees” foolishness. Riggs said, “Billie Jean King and I did wonders for women’s tennis. They owe me a piece of their checks.”
As Stephen Tignor has noted, there is a long history of the ATP distancing itself from women’s tennis. The truth is that sexism is part and parcel of virtually all cultures. In tennis, women have to perform a hugely challenging, often solitary and lonely sport in front of thousands in skimpy outfits. They’re paid well. Still, failure and humiliation are part of tennis’ DNA. Time and again women are objectified and judged on their looks. When the Maria Sharapova scandal broke, I joked that in just seven weeks tennis had seen a lifetime of tumult and trauma: A full-out gambling scandal in February and the fall of our most glamorous star in March. What’s next, I asked, an abuse scandal in April?
But tennis didn’t wait. Rather, on March 21st we were left to wonder whether there has ever been a more swift and sudden demise of a sports official than the “Moore is Less” scandal. Just 35 hours earlier Moore was talking about trying to upgrade the status of the BNP Paribas Open and elevating it into a position as a Grand Masters – above other Masters. But the scandal proved that even gifted, wonderful people who’ve seen it all can fall in one ill-considered moment. Last year in a ceremony, Bud Collins spoke of Moore, saying, “I’ve known Ray since he was a player for South Africa, and he’s very brave…he stood up against apartheid.” Locally, Moore contributed thousands to help Marines enjoy tennis.
When the new Stadium 1 opened at Indian Wells in 1999 Moore said, “It’s phenomenal – it’s beyond our wildest dreams.” Now we’ve seen a nightmare we couldn’t have imagined. The most incredible team in tennis management – Charlie Pasarell (who retired), Steve Simon (who became the executive director of the WTA last fall) and Moore, who all worked so hard to save and grow a fabulous tourney, were gone. It was a management shift that could shock the most jaded of corporate observers. In 25 seconds, Moore’s 40-year career went down the drain. Just 31 infamous, matter-of-fact words sank his ship. How sad, how tragic. What would this good man do to now to have these bad words back: “If I was a lady player,” he casually suggested. “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.”
Shortly after the women’s final, I made my way down from the press room to Moore’s generous office under the Indian Wells stadium. Sitting alone – ironically under a huge photo of his hero, the trailblazing male feminist John Lennon – he was calm and totally unaware of the tornado of scorn that was to hit. I told him, “Ray, I’ve been around a long time and your comments will be as controversial as anything in tennis since [ITF President Phillipe] Chartrier claimed in ’82 that Africans were good athletes and could jump, but will never become good tennis players.” Moore replied, “What I said was taken out of context. It was my idea of making a lame joke. I also said there are many young women players on the tour who’re exciting. I also feel that the men’s players should get down on their knees and be grateful to Rafa and Roger too. If my comment offended, then I do apologize.” As I walked out of Moore’s office, the tournament’s PR chief walked in to try and avoid a debacle. Twenty-five minutes later, an official apology was issued. But it was too little, too late.
It’s hard to not to wonder whether jealousy or business rivalry also played a role. Simon, Moore’s longtime partner, had left in the fall to head the WTA. The two reportedly were good friends who’d breakfast together. But now, out of nowhere, Ray seemed to take a shot. He introduced his infamous comment by saying, “In my next life when I come back I want to be someone in the WTA, because they ride on the coattails of the men. They don’t make any decisions and they are lucky. They are very, very lucky.”
The fact is that tennis has been “lucky.” Fans worldwide have come to relish with delight the ongoing drama of a game played by both genders. Never mind that many great female stars – Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin, Li Na – interrupt or end their careers to give birth. Tennis is still “lucky” to have had the most powerful feminist insurgence in sports – thanks Billie Jean, Gladys, Rosie and Venus. And the sport has been blessed to have had generation after generation of astounding young athletically-gifted women who are so adept off-court as well.
Not surprisingly, the now-mature often insightful Serena was upset. “Obviously,” she said, “I don’t think any woman should be down on their knees thanking anybody…If I could tell you every day how many people say they don’t watch tennis unless they’re watching myself or my sister, I couldn’t even bring up that number…There are a lot of women out there who are more … are very exciting to watch. I think there are a lot of men out there who are exciting to watch. I think it definitely goes both ways.” She said Moore’s stance was an insult to Billie Jean King’s legacy and to all women.
Vika Azarenka came off her huge Indian Wells win and said that men don’t get the insults women do, so “we [women] have to work through” the barbs. She noted that it’s women who give birth to everyone and added, “Through the years the comments [on my] grunting…I could give less of s–t about it…I’m just going to rise above…Why can’t we just be happy and enjoy and support each other, because 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.”
Now the BNP Paribas Open will have to take care of the aftermath of the breakfast debacle. Will a woman like marketing maven Dee Dee Felich be brought in as tournament director? Or perhaps the vastly popular Craig Tiley, who heads the Aussie Open, will be considered. And what will the fallout be for the usually diplomatic Novak Djokovic, whose tone-deaf comments were also demeaning and questioned the established Grand Slam tradition of equal pay for women?
Tennis will soon see. After all, of late, there has been no lack of drama in this game.