Sexism at the Madrid Open

Andy Newman


It is more than 30 years since Billy Jean King formed the Women's’ Tennis Association (WTA), and she threatened a strike if women players did not get equal pay in the major tournaments.

Today, notwithstanding the poster girl status of Anna Kournakova, women tennis players are respected as serious athletes. A reputation further reinforced by the formidable personal strength and ability of the Venus sisters, who have raised the level of competition.

So it was a surprise when the organisers of the 2004 Madrid Open brought in 19 to 28 year old models to act as ball-girls instead of the usual tradition of using volunteer young tennis fans. At the time the decision was fiercely criticised by Soledad Murillo, Spain's Secretary for Equality, who sent a protest letter to the tournament director, the sponsors Hugo Boss and the Madrid mayor. Andre Agassi also said he was unimpressed, particularly when one model had to be asked to return to her position by the umpire, after collecting a ball .

 Unfortunately, this year’s competition saw a repetition of this degrading spectacle. The American Sports’ web-site, “Most Valuable Network” reported: “For evening matches, fashion models posing as ball-girls march onto the court in unison with their hands behind them. They are wearing lime green Boss tops and gray short skirts. If there was any doubt that sports is all about entertainment and sex, it’s long gone. The marching models and the flashing ads lining the court make the scene look like an electronic version of Vogue magazine

In response to the criticism about sexism, the organisers have arranged for male fashion models to act as ball boys for the Women's’ Tennis Association Tour Championships in Madrid that will take place between 7th and 12th November 2006and which will involve the top 8 women players in the world. WTA tour boss Larry Scott is reported as saying: "The addition of a touch of fashion adds that extra element of entertainment to the most important event on the WTA Tour calendar. The players aren't only great athletes. They are also fashion icons; this idea complements the crossover between sport and fashion."

Women long ago won the battle of equal pay in tennis. And through the talent, guts and determination of Billy Jean King and Martina Navratilova they threw off the stereotype that women athletes should be demure and pleasing to men. It is a big step backward for the WTA to collude with the sexism of the Madrid organisers. Larry Scott’s comments clearly exhibit a prejudice that any serious woman athlete should also aspire to be a hot babe. Have we just gone backwards 40 years?