Serena Williams may have highlighted sexism in tennis, but what do three-set matches say to young girls about inferiority?
What are young women supposed to think when the institution tangibly says that women cannot play as much tennis as men? It’s time to change
Serena Williams is in a far better position than me to declare if there is sexism on the tennis court and unfair treatment. Whether her reaction in the US Open final was warranted, I applaud her commitment to her point and not simply apologising after the fact.
But why do we not hear more top female players declare: “Hey, we are strong, fit people, who can push ourselves for as long as men?”
The most sexist thing about tennis is the length of women’s matches. It sends a clear message to young girls: ‘You are incapable of doing as much as men’.
There is no other major sport where women’s matches or events are so significantly different to men’s. A women’s marathon is not 20 miles, a women’s football match is not 70 minutes long, there is no 80-metre sprint and a rugby game does not finish 20 minutes before the men’s.
So why in tennis do women play three sets compared to the men’s five?
Serena Williams fought back after being penalized at the U.S. Open Final. Would a male tennis player be treated the same way? pic.twitter.com/qURaAnsJsw
— AJ+ (@ajplus) September 9, 2018
Serena Williams & Co are phenomenal athletes. She is a professional sportswoman and one of the best ever. Are you telling me she cannot play for as long as her male counterparts?
At the US Open final, she divided sports fans with her outburst. The umpire said she received coaching from the player’s box and took away a point, then further penalised her for her reaction, which included calling the umpire a “thief”.
She later doubled down on her anger, saying that men are not penalised for the same infractions. Sure, she may have suffered by losing points, Williams said, but she paved the way for other women by pointing out the hypocrisy.
Everyone should listen to this from Serena Williams. pic.twitter.com/TF03dhpq2P
— Cameron Cox (@CamCox12) September 8, 2018
Williams in the past has said she would happily play five, even seven, sets. Others have called for the men’s game to be cut to three.
It’s a great start, but there needs to be more vocal anger about the subject, as there was this weekend, given it is the most tangible sexism in sport and it comes with a damming message: the match length difference is an institutionalised way of spreading the idea that women are not as capable as men, which is obviously rubbish.
It perpetuates all the worst stereotypes around what it means to be feminine: meek, lesser than men, just the right amount of sweaty and not too driven.
When the world is full of incredible role models like Williams, who use their platform to show young girls that they can be strong and competitive, they are undermined by the powers-that-be dictating their incapacity to play as much tennis as men.
It took time for other sports to recognise that women are not meek damsels. A famous example is medical experts insisting if women ran a full marathon it would cause them physical damage.
Kathrine Switzer then sneaked into the Boston Marathon and proved them wrong in 1967. There were female long distance runners at the time, but 26 miles was deemed too far for “fragile” women, as Switzer’s coach said.
The Boston Marathon accepted women officially in 1972. That was almost 50 years ago, and yet, the organisers of tennis still assume women cannot play as much tennis as men.
Culture has shifted. No longer are we stuck in the days when women are expected to be ladylike. Young girls look to many great role models showing that they can be uncompromising in the pursuit of excellence.
It’s time for tennis to recognise this shift and understand women are every bit as capable as men to play five sets.
The International Tennis Federation needs to understand the message of inferiority they are sending to all its young fans.