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DO THE TOP WOMEN'S PLAYERS OWE A DUTY TO PROMOTE WOMEN'S TENNIS?



Last month, world number #3 Aryna Sabalenka made headlines for comments she made at the Madrid Open.

 

The two-time Australian Open spoke candidly about her tennis watching habits, revealing a preference for men’s tennis over women’s tennis.

 

“I prefer to watch men’s tennis rather than women’s tennis,” Sabalenka said.

 

“I feel like there is more strategy and it’s more interesting to watch.”

 

Unsurprisingly, the comments prompted a firestorm on social media.

 

Sabalenka is not the first current or former WTA player to spark outrage by deriding the product of women’s tennis.

 

The likes of Camila Giorgi and Amelie Mauresmo have also drawn ire for expressing views perceived to undermine the growth and legitimacy of the women’s game.

 

More recently, Roland Garros tournament director Mauresmo was subject to further criticism for the dearth of women’s matches played in the Philippe Chatrier night session (notably none in 2024), the time slot marketed as being reserved for “match of the day”.

 

Mauresmo has responded to questions on the subject in a typically diplomatic fashion.

 

“The answer is also that we try,” she said.

 

“We have three big courts that we try to balance, where we try to balance the schedule.”

 

In contexts such as this, the discourse surrounding women’s tennis, and the role played by its leaders, comes into sharper focus.

 

Of course, any comments made by professional and ex-professional players must be analysed through the lens of potential mistranslations or uncharitable interpretations, with players often conducting interviews in languages other than their native tongue.

 

However, regardless of the detailed perspective of any individual, the question arises as to whether professional women’s tennis players, and possibly also former players, owe a moral (not legal) duty to the sport and their fellow professionals to refrain from speaking negatively about women’s tennis.

 

Perhaps the most obvious defence for comments such as Sabalenka’s is that of candour.

 

Sports often benefit from having big personalities at their forefront, generating further discussion amongst fans and more headlines for journalists.

 

If Sabalenka is speaking honestly, in that she does in fact prefer watching men’s tennis in her spare time, who are we to say that she should not express such a view?

 

The argument is compelling but fails to consider the broader context in which top tennis players operate.

 

All consumers of tennis and sport more broadly should be aware that their favourite athletes, whilst possessing personalities and individual qualities, are simultaneously serving other interests every time they speak publicly.

 

Whether appealing to sponsors, a league or organisation, or any other personal agenda, professional athletes are representing much more than themselves, as reflected in the clothing they wear, the equipment they use, or their history of advertisements.

 

Positives and negatives flow from this dynamic, most prominently the likely exchange of individuality and personality for handsome material rewards for the players.

 

Why then would Sabalenka’s comments be considered immune to this interrelationship of interests?

 

Of course, the direct and transactional nature of sponsorship arrangements is not as obvious when it comes to speaking of a sport more broadly, but as one of the biggest names in women’s tennis, Sabalenka’s words directly affect the status of women’s tennis and may serve to legitimise sexist attitudes which undermine its progress.

 

Consider one of the major ongoing battlegrounds for women’s tennis, that of achieving equal pay across all levels of the game (an idea for which Sabalenka has expressed support), which is one of the material consequences stemming from the perpetuation of the notion women’s tennis simply does not match up to men’s tennis for entertainment or strategic value.

 

In this sense, expecting Sabalenka to avoid diminishing the product of women’s tennis is hardly inconsistent with other similar demands made by sponsors and organisations.

 

Another common response in defence of Sabalenka’s comments is the belief that what she says is true.

 

Denying Sabalenka or anyone else the right to say such things cultivates a dishonest and undesirable state of public discourse, so the argument goes.

 

Again, however, such a position oversimplifies the reality.

 

Whether a person considers men’s tennis more interesting or strategic is of course a matter of personal preference, making determining the ‘truth’ an impossible task.

 

However, regardless of what is in fact the truth, any person (including Sabalenka) is entitled to prefer watching men’s tennis over women’s tennis.

 

But unlike Sabalenka, or any other person directly involved in women’s professional tennis, most individuals’ views are not so directly linked to the perception of women’s tennis as a whole, nor do they have the power to effect positive change which further reduces inequalities.

 

The status of Sabalenka brings with it an expectation that one be cautious regarding how their views may influence broader debates

 

One might insist on the argument that what they consider to be true prevails even considering Sabalenka’s position, at which point the need to examine the effects of misogyny arises.

 

To believe that women’s sport operates on the same footing as men’s sport, and that any criticism of the product or its failure to attract equivalent commercial success is purely a consequence of its apparently diminished quality, fails to contemplate the ubiquitous (and often internalised) nature of misogyny, particularly on a global scale.

 

One’s perception of the truth is important, but so is critical reflection on how we and others reach our conclusions.

 

Ultimately, the tension between personal, commercial, and moral interests is as prominent as ever.

 

Supporters of women’s tennis are right to feel aggrieved that those in power, such as Sabalenka and Mauresmo, have failed to adequately represent certain interests.

 

Similar complaints can be directed at WTA leadership for not only the recent decision to award hosting rights for the next three editions of the WTA Finals in Riyadh, but also a generally lax approach to marketing and growing the sport.

 

Crucially, the solution is not to silence dissenting perspectives, but rather to consider their broader impact and weigh them against our tolerance for alternative views on other matters.

 

Sabalenka did clarify her original comments in the days after they were made.

 

“I didn’t want to damage women’s tennis,” she said.

 

“I don’t like to watch [women’s tennis] just because I play against all of them.”

 

“It’s not like I don’t like it.”

 

“I was just trying to say that…for me it’s more fun (to watch men’s tennis) than watching my future opponents in the tournament.”

 

A reasonable clarification, although regardless of Sabalenka’s personal view, the debate about her role and that of others in a similar position will no doubt be ongoing.

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