Even though tennis has a history of helping women break down gender barriers, dating back to Billie Jean King’s career, there is still a long way to go, if a recent controversial statement on a Russian TV show is anything to go by.
A television host named Ivan Urgant made a comment on his show, Evening Urgant, about one of Maria Sharapova’s opponents in an Olympic match: “I was at the Olympics and saw Maria Sharapova play her… him…”
Urgant’s guest, Shamil Tarpischev, finished Urgant’s statement. “…one of the Williams brothers,” Tarpischev said, referring to sisters Serena and Venus Williams.
But the problem wasn’t just a random crass comment about the Williams Sisters. Tarpischev is the president of the Russian Tennis Federation and the director of an annual pro tennis tournament in Moscow.
As a result of the comment, the Women’s Tennis Association took action fast, and Tarpischev now faces a one-year ban and a $25,000 fine from the WTA.
After the controversy broke, Tarpischev offered this non-apology: “I am sorry that the joke which was translated into English out of its context of a comedy show drew so much attention. I don’t think this situation is worth all the hoopla because those words were said without any malice.”
Serena Williams, who is currently ranked the no. 1 women’s tennis player in the world by WTA, praised the organization for their quick response to the hurtful comments, saying that they did a “great job of taking initiative.”
In a press conference before her WTA Tour Finals championship in Singapore, she also said of the comments, “I thought they were very insensitive and extremely sexist as well as racist at the same time… I thought they were in a way bullying.”
“The interesting aspect here is women are coming more and more to the forefront and some people just don’t want to accept it,” says Mike Cash, Managing Director at Cityview. “We have so many more women today competing at very high levels, that the ney-sayers come across as down right foolish.”
Sadly, this isn’t the first time that sexism has reared its head in the world of tennis. Australian player Marinko Matosevic commented this year during Wimbledon on Andy Murray’s choice to hire a female coach, saying “For me, I couldn’t do it since I don’t think that highly of the women’s game.”
At the Australian Open last year, French player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga referred to female tennis players as “more unstable emotionally” than male players and blamed this on women’s hormones.
Another French player, Gilles Simon, told reporters at Wimbledon in 2012 that “men’s tennis is ahead of women’s tennis” in terms of men’s effort and the “attractive show” they provide. He used this reasoning to justify his claim that men’s and women’s tennis players should not receive equal prize money.