Women’s professional tennis has been the torchbearer in the fight for gender equality across all professional sports. The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), led by the vision and courage of Billie Jean King and continued by Venus Williams and others, has headed this fight since the early 70s; a battle that resulted in all 4 Grand Slams providing equal pay to men and women in tennis today.
While the significance of this progress cannot be overstated, the ultimate goal of complete gender equality has not yet been met – not even in tennis.
Earlier this week, Raymond Moore resigned as CEO of Indian Wells after negative backlash from sexist comments he made during the BNP Paribas Open last week.
Moore, a 69 year old former top player, said female players should “get on their knees” to thank the top male stars, and that the women’s game “rides the coat-tails” of the men.
That same day, Victoria Azarenka took down Serena Williams 6-4, 6-4 to continue an amazing run so far in 2016. If you recall, Azarenka held the #1 ranking back in 2012 before Serena took control of the women’s game. Since then, Vika dropped out of the top 30, and hasn’t advanced past the quarterfinals of a major since 2013.
Azarenka started 2016 by taking the title in Brisbane before securing her second title of the year this week at Indian Wells. She has compiled a 16-1 singles record that has her back in the top 10, including a dominant finals victory over her biggest rival.
While this comeback-player-of-the-year, return-to-glory style story line is full of substance, it has been buried by the comments made by Moore and become another consequence, another victim of this prejudicial behavior still prevalent in tennis today.
Quickly after Moore spoke, many figures inside and out of professional tennis condemned his sentiments including Serena Williams, the United States Tennis Association, Martina Navratilova and many others. These reactions sparked an eruption of attention and public accountability that led directly to Moore’s resignation in a matter of days.
Billie Jean King paved the way for this to be possible. She advocated with courage and pride for gender equality in professional tennis. She used her place as a major champion (and, of course, beating Bobby Riggs) to draw attention to clear injustices unfairly victimizing women, and it led to real change.
The instant condemnation from the ‘court of public opinion’ over the past week led quickly to Moore and his archaic opinions moving on. While it might be far fetched to match the platform or courage of Billie Jean King or Serena Williams, calling out sexism and bigotry where we see it with whatever voice we have is the only path to real change.
More positively, congratulations to Victoria Azarenka on an amazing week of tennis. Unfortunately, in 2016 the brilliant play of the potential comeback-player-of-the-year still gets overshadowed by an entitled old white man’s prejudice.