Did they really say that at Indian Wells?

A weird week it was at Indian Wells. First, Ray Moore, the CEO and director of the tournament, triggered a controversy with his ill-conceived and inflammatory comments against the WTA players. Then, after the final, in a bizarre twist, Novak Djokovic re-opened the equal pay debate, contending that men deserved greater compensation than women.

Gender bias? Tournament Director Raymond Moore with Serena Williams (centre) and Victoria Azarenka after the final of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California. Moore, who denigrated the WTA players, was promptly sacked for his comments.   -  AP

Sania Mirza… the most searched-for personality on Google India in 2005, ahead of film star Aishwarya Rai and cricket great Sachin Tendulkar.   -  AP

Not since Al Campanis and “Jimmy the Greek” Snyder has an American sports figure shot himself in the foot and triggered controversy as infamously as Ray Moore recently did. In 1987, Campanis, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ baseball general manager, said on national television, “I truly believe blacks may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager or a general manager.” And in a 1988 television interview, ironically on Martin Luther King Day, CBS pro football odds-maker Snyder stated black Americans were superior athletes because of physical traits “bred” by slave owners. Both were promptly fired for their foolish remarks.

Gender bias, not racial bias, proved Moore’s downfall.

Moore, the CEO and director of the largest two-week combined ATP and WTA tennis tournament in the world, denigrated half of the players in it. Hours before the Sunday finals at the $10.5 million BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, California, Moore told the media, “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. 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.”

The backlash was predictable, fast, and furious.

Denouncing Moore’s remarks, World No. 1 Serena Williams, the tour’s elder stateswoman, along with her sister Venus, brilliantly countered: “I don’t think any woman should be down on her knees thanking anybody like that. I think Venus, myself, a number of players — 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. So I don’t think that is a very accurate statement. I think there are a lot of women out there who 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. . . . There’s only one way to interpret that, ‘Get on your knees,’ which is offensive enough, and ‘thank a man’? We, as women, have come a long way. We shouldn’t have to drop to our knees at any point.”

 

Then Serena brought up an incontrovertible and inconvenient fact: that her bid for a Grand Slam in 2015 generated such excitement that tickets for the U.S. Open women’s final were sold out before the men’s final for the first time in tournament history. “I’m sorry, did Roger play in that final? Or Rafa, or any man, play in that final that was sold out before the men’s final? I think not.” Serena went on to say, “You look at someone like Billie Jean King who opened so many doors for not only women’s players but women’s athletes in general. So, I feel like that is such a disservice to her and every female — not only a female athlete but every woman on this planet — who has ever tried to stand up for what they believed in, being proud to be a woman.”

Women have indeed come a long way since Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, said in 1902: “Women have but one task, that of crowning the winner with garlands.” But by the Roaring Twenties, tennis both shaped and reflected the growing emancipation of women. Suzanne Lenglen, a flamboyant French superstar who exposed her calves and wore lipstick, epitomised that. Bill Tilden, the most famous male player in that era, conceded ruefully that Lenglen was a greater draw than he was.

In fact, men have taken a back seat to women at Grand Slam events on quite a few occasions. Sometimes compelling rivalries, such as Martina Navratilova versus Chris Evert, Steffi Graf versus Monica Seles and Serena versus Venus, have overshadowed their male counterparts. For example, at the 2015 U.S. open, the all-Williams quarterfinal produced a 3.7 rating on ESPN, more than double the 1.8 rating for the Federer-Novak Djokovic men's final.

“Teen Queens”

Other times “teen queens” Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court, Evert, Jennifer Capriati, Seles and Martina Hingis captivated the sports world. When the colourful Seles returned to the 1995 U.S. Open 27 months after being stabbed during a tournament match, attention was so riveted on her that Stefan Edberg called it “the Seles Open.”

That the protagonist in the Indian Wells controversy is Ray Moore is ironic because he was well-liked and respected for his progressive positions. A world-class player in the 1960s and ’70s, the rollicking Moore was nicknamed “Hippie” and “The Wolfman” for his shoulder-length hair, headband and devilry. The serious Moore outspokenly criticised apartheid in his native South Africa, campaigning for the Progressive Party. His penchant for politics turned to sports in the 1980s when he served as president of the Association of Tennis Professionals and chairman of the Men’s International Professional Tennis Council.

 

The two Indian Wells finals turned out to be another irony. Novak Djokovic outclassed Milos Raonic 6-2, 6-0, in an exceedingly boring but mercifully quick final. In sharp contrast, a resurgent Victoria Azarenka upset Serena 6-4, 6-4, flashing the outstanding form that earned her two major titles and the No. 1 ranking in 2012-2013.

In truth, both the WTA Tour and the ATP Tour have enjoyed Golden eras featuring charismatic champions and great rivalries. From 1999 to 2007, Serena, Venus, Seles, Hingis, Capriati, Justine Henin, Maria Sharapova, Kim Clijsters, Lindsay Davenport, Mary Pierce and Amelie Mauresmo, all current or future Hall of Famers, packed the super-talented top 10. From 2008 to 2015, the men’s game was blessed with superstars Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic. The trio treated us to numerous dynamic duels, especially in epic finals at the 2008 Wimbledon and the 2012 Australian Open.

In some Grand Slam and other co-ed events, the women have carried the men, and vice versa. The men stage more total tournaments in more total countries and for more total prize money, but that cuts both ways because it attenuates the strength and depth of each men’s tournament in some weeks. ESPN TV ratings for the women have often been higher than for the men at Grand Slam events. Although Serena has had no elite rival since Henin’s first retirement in early 2008, the standard of tennis among top 100 players is considerably better than ever.

The women generally have brought more personality than the men. That’s crucial in an individual sport, especially in attracting casual fans. If all the world’s a stage, the leading female characters have nearly always been engaging. The crusading Billie Jean King, the feminine but tough Evert, the zany Seles, the bubbling Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, the mischievous Hingis, the sassy Anna Kournikova, the classy Venus, and provocative quotes machine Serena, among many others, have amused, enraged, shocked, enlightened and inspired us.

There are some more points to ponder:

Though Federer, Nadal and Djokovic surpass all women players in earning power, six of Forbes.com’s top 10 highest-paid female athletes in 2015 were tennis players, and the top three were Sharapova, Serena and Caroline Wozniacki.

The highest ESPN2 ratings at that time by far for a tennis match on ESPN2 was the Serena Williams-Maria Sharapova final at the 2007 Australian Open.

Sania Mirza was the most searched-for personality on Google India in 2005, ahead of film star Aishwarya Rai and cricket great Sachin Tendulkar.

In a 2004 Sports Illustrated magazine poll, 85% of respondents nominated tennis players as the sexiest female athletes during the past 50 years.

“The most dynamic duo” in sports, according to a 2004 Sports Illustrated for Kids reader poll were Serena and Venus (47%), who left in their wake Shaq and Kobe (18%).

In 2005 Sony Ericsson Mobile communications became WTA Tour’s worldwide title sponsor in a landmark $88 million, six-year deal, which was the largest and most comprehensive sponsorship in the history of tennis and women’s professional sport.

Many of these pertinent facts about the popularity of women’s tennis seem to have eluded Ray Moore. Before the backlash over his ill-conceived and inflammatory comments began, he was asked how long he planned to remain in charge at Indian Wells. The clueless Moore replied, “Firstly, I love what I’m doing. I’m passionate about it. I enjoy it. Who knows who the face of the tournament will be down the road. But I don’t think that, oh, I’m going to stop next year or (in) three years.”

Hours later, Moore’s written apology was issued by the tournament during the men’s final. And the next day tournament owner and billionaire Larry Ellison announced Moore’s resignation.

Djokovic joins debate

In a bizarre twist, Djokovic, apparently overflowing with testosterone after his superb final victory, re-opened the equal pay debate. He contended men deserved greater compensation, though Indian Wells and other co-ed tournaments, along with the Grand Slam events, have offered equal prize money to men and women for several years. The U.S. Open was the first major to dole out equal prize money in 1973, and Wimbledon the last in 2008.

“Women deserve respect and admiration for what they are doing,” Djokovic told The Guardian (UK). “You know, equal prize money was the main subject of the tennis world in the last seven, eight years. I have been through that process as well, so I understand how much power and energy WTA and all the advocates for equal prize money have invested in order to reach that. I think that our men’s tennis world, ATP world, should fight for more because the stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men’s tennis matches. I think that’s one of the, you know, reasons why maybe we should get awarded more. Women should fight for what they think they deserve, and we should fight for what we think we deserve.”

Then The Djoker, who seriously wasn’t joking, really went off the rails.

“I have tremendous respect for what women in global sport are doing and achieving,” he told The Guardian. “Their bodies are much different to men’s bodies. They have to go through a lot of different things that we don’t have to go through. You know, the hormones and different stuff, we don’t need to go into details. I have great admiration and respect for them to be able to fight on such a high level. Many of them have to sacrifice for certain periods of time, the family time or decisions that they make on their own bodies in order to play tennis and play professional sport. I have had a woman that was my coach and that was a huge part of my tennis career. I’m surrounded by women. I’m very happy to be married with one and to have a child. I’m completely for women power.”

Djokovic quickly apologised on Facebook for his silly and out-of-character comments. As USA Today writer Nina Mandell gently put it, “Seriously guys, both genders have hormones.”

When Azarenka was told about Moore’s comments, she called them “very much mistaken and very, very inaccurate.” The inimitable Vika then added a fresh, if simplistic perspective: “I don’t understand any man’s comments in general towards women, because, as simple as that, every single person on earth was brought and was born by a woman. . . . We’re better at taking opportunities and being graceful. Why do you have to make that comment? Who cares? Simple as that. Just to make more drama or jokes?”

Vika wasn’t joking, but she got a few laughs from the media anyway.

Navratilova’s historical perspective

Navratilova, admired for her efforts to advance women’s, gay and animal rights, inevitably weighed in, too. She has known Moore since the 1970s when both pro circuits started. “He’s a good guy, a great guy for the sport, and he’s been supportive of women’s tennis, but he really did himself a disservice.” She called Moore’s remarks “extremely prejudiced, really disheartening, and very old-fashioned.”

Then Navratilova rebutted and refuted them.

 

“The whole tennis game has been riding on the coattails of the top players — and not just Federer and Nadal, but also Sharapova and Serena and Venus Williams,” the 59-time major winner told Tennis Channel. “The top players carry the sport. There’s no doubt about it. All the lower-ranked players need to be thankful for that. But, of course, without the lower-ranked players, we don’t have superstars. So everything is a symbiotic relationship. Most of all, these mixed events have to be recognised equally because the reason they’re great is because both men and women compete.”

Navratilova further noted that both men and women play best-two-of-three-set matches at Indian Wells. At the four Grand Slam events, though, men play best-three-of-five-set matches, and the bitter-ender foes of equal prize money still cling to the flawed argument that more work deserves more pay.

Navratilova, a workhorse champion who often played singles, doubles and mixed doubles at the majors, put the equal prize money debate into historical perspective.

“On the quantity versus quality issue, way back in the 1980s, the women offered to play three of five sets at the Grand Slams,” she recalled. “And the men said, ‘Oh, no, no, we don’t want you to do that.’ So you can’t use that argument against us to pay us less. Actually, back then the ball was in play longer in two of three sets for the women than in three of five sets for the men on the grass because the grass was faster and the guys didn’t have any rallies at all.” Hardcore tennis fans will remember that the season-ending WTA Championships played three-of-five-set finals from 1984 to 1998.

Equal prize money also had a checkered history at the Australian Open.

“In the 1970s, we’re getting such bad treatment — no equal prize money, no equal representation on the show courts,” said Navratilova. “So we went off on our own with the Toyota Australian Open, and Chris Evert, Rosie Casals, I and the others made it such a success. Then the guys came back to us and said, ‘By the way, can we join you and do it together?’ We said yes (in 1984), but only if we have equal prize money and equal matches on the show courts.”

That worked until the women were double-crossed in 1996. “The Aussies took away the equal prize money” recalled Navratilova, “because they said the men were doing so much better than the women. Like, excuse me! They finally went back to equal prize money in 2001. And I thought we were done with this discussion. If you want more money, then go back on your own. But if we’re in this together, we must be paid equally.”

The last word in this controversy goes to an outsider, Geno Auriemma, the renowned University of Connecticut women’s basketball coach. After winning his record 10th NCAA title a year ago, Auriemma told Sports Illustrated, “My favourite tennis player of all time is Steffi Graf. I loved watching her play... . You know what? I never read anywhere that Steffi Graf was not as good as Bjorn Borg. Seriously, what’s the point of that? I grew up appreciating greatness regardless of anything.”

So should Moore and so should all of us.