The tennis calendar is long, one of the longest seasons in sport. Players generally only take a week or two off at the end of the year, before getting going with pre-season training ahead of the first Grand Slam of the year, the Australian Open.
Being at home during the Covid-19 pandemic is the longest some of them have had off from the tour in years, even decades. And being off at the same time is unprecedented. There’s been plenty of lockdown lightheartedness, from solo wall drills and 100-volley partner challenges to missed racquets and GOATs playing themselves. But it’s also given players pause for thought.
Roger Federer jumped on the gender divide in tennis early on, suggesting in April that the enforced hiatus was a good time to consider merging the men’s and women’s tours. “Am I the only one thinking that now is the time,” he tweeted.
Federer had been discussing it with Rafa Nadal, who is in favour of a merger. And Andy Murray was quick to vocalise his support, although he’s long been a feminist. He was the first male player to hire a female coach in Amélie Mauresmo and gained a slew of new fans when he corrected a sexist journalist without skipping a beat in his Wimbledon 2017 post-match interview.
Joanna Konta, who is on the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) player council, cautiously supports the merger but told The Guardian newspaper that it’d have to be a “merger of equals”. She is understandably wary, after having her semifinal match at Roland Garros last year moved to a half-empty outer court.
WTA chief executive Steve Simon has endorsed the move, telling The New York Times newspaper that “obviously it’s a long and winding road to get there” but that he “would certainly be the first to support it”.
Trailblazer Billie Jean King has been advocating for a merger of the tours for decades. “The WTA on its own was always Plan B.” But this is the first time since the women’s tour began in 1973 that the WTA, Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and male players at the top of the game have publicly supported the move. Because it has been predominantly male players against a merger in the past. As Murray revealed to The Times, some male players would still rather earn less than see women players receive equal prize money. “So there will be some challenges,” he said.
The tours have already come together to create a digital show, Tennis United. Grand Slam doubles champions Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Vasek Pospisil host the show, which launched in early April and airs every Friday to “bring the tennis world together during the hiatus on both the ATP and WTA tours”.
The coronavirus pandemic has again shone a spotlight on the huge discrepancy in earnings between the top players and those ranked lower, who make up the bulk of the tours. It’s something that could certainly sway lower-ranked players into taking the risk of travelling to and playing in tournaments before they feel safe to do so, simply to start earning again.
Novak Djokovic further highlighted the issue when he initiated the idea of the Player Relief Fund, to which he envisioned top players contributing according to a sliding scale based on ranking, for redistribution to those ranked up to 700. A number of top players were vocal in their opposition, however, preferring to donate to medical organisations in their countries during the pandemic.
Dominic Thiem drew a mixed response when he opposed the idea by saying, “There are many, many players who don’t put the sport above everything else and don’t live in a professional manner.” The knee-jerk reaction online was how dare he, with the prize money he’s made. Many commentators, however, quickly identified the bigger issue, which is how tennis as a sport compensates players.
As former pro Naomi Cavaday explained, players ranked below around 350, “particularly in the women’s game … you’re not earning any money, you’re losing money each year, you’re spending money to go to tournaments. So this [not being able to play] isn’t going to cripple players.”
Inès Ibbou is 21 and ranked 620 in singles. She took umbrage to Thiem’s comments and created a video about her dedication, sacrifices and the hurdles she’s overcome to become a pro tennis player from Algeria, calling the Austrian out on his “privilege”. She came out on top in an unexpected way. The traction her video gained on social media resulted in Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune tweeting that “Algeria cannot lose a sporting talent like Ines Ibbou” and Sports Minister Sid Ali Khaldi posting on social media that he had spoken to Ibbou and “assured her of the state’s readiness to support her”.
No stranger to controversy during lockdown – from his anti-vaccination stance and support for bizarre science to his ill-fated Adria charity tour, which with no social distancing in place resulted in a number of tennis players and surely unmasked spectators contracting the coronavirus – Djokovic’s version of a player relief fund was superseded by one funded by the WTA, ATP, International Tennis Federation and Grand Slams.
The fund committed to paying ATP singles players ranked between 101 and 500 two instalments of $8 650 (about R32 000), half that for doubles players ranked 51 to 175. And the WTA said it’d be paying singles players ranked higher than 500 and doubles players higher than 175 two instalments of R10 400. There were caveats to the payouts, though.
At the other end of the scale, towards the end of May Forbes business magazine announced Naomi Osaka as the highest-paid female athlete ever. She overtook Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, having accumulated prize money and endorsements of $37 million in the past year. Osaka and Williams were the only two women to make Forbes’ top 100 highest-paid athletes list for 2020, which saw Federer as the first tennis player to take the No. 1 spot in the list’s 30-year history.
Younger players lead the way
Former pros James Blake and Martina Navratilova teamed up to discuss inequality and social change in June, Pride Month. “When it comes to gay rights and equality, we have come a long way, baby,” said Navratilova, referencing the old slogan for Virginia Slims cigarettes, the original sponsor of the women’s tour.
“It’s just gradually come to where gay people come out, less and less attention is being paid to that. But this is what the whole idea was. When my mom used to tell me, ‘Why are you always the one walking, you know, marching and holding the flag in the front line?’ I’m like, ‘Well, there’s not that many people behind me,’” said Navratilova lightheartedly. “I was marching so that one day we don’t have to march at all. We’re still marching, but it’s so nice to have those kind of steps forward where people don’t care. Which was the whole point. We shouldn’t have to make a disclaimer, one way or the other.”
Blake, now the tournament director of the Miami Open, expressed his disappointment at its cancellation. “One of the things I’m pretty bummed about with missing the Miami Open is … last year we did an Out at the Open event to celebrate Pride Month, to celebrate the diversity … and I was really looking forward to making it bigger and even better.
“I feel like younger people are starting to lead the way … about having inclusivity,” he said. “So many barriers got shattered and I feel like at times it was cracks, cracks, cracks and then shattered by people like Martina, by people like Serena and Venus, by Arthur Ashe, by Althea Gibson.”
Greet Minnen and Alison van Uytvanck, who won their first doubles title at the Luxembourg Open in 2018, are two such younger players. Together for four and a half years now, they were initially “a little bit scared to tell our parents,” said Van Uytvanck. “The worst feeling … Once I told them, I was so relieved.
“From the first day you meet each other and you have those feelings, you should come out and be proud of who you are,” she added.
“The tennis community was great, they really were positive about us, about who we are,” said Minnen.
“When we came out, we had a lot of positive reactions. Not only in the tennis community but, like, overall in the world. Which was nice to have, we were a little bit surprised by that,” said Van Uytvanck.
Both of the players have been caught unawares by the number of requests they receive to publicly represent queer interests, but glad to be asked and participate. Van Uytvanck and Minnen appeared on the panel of the US Open’s Love All: An Open Conversation event alongside King last year to talk about LGBTQIA+ participation in sport.
“I’m definitely proud of tennis,” said Blake. “It continues to go in the right direction.”
Power in unity
But it was the Black Lives Matter movement that really gained momentum during lockdown, when the police killing of George Floyd resulted in protests around the world.
Osaka, Coco Gauff, Félix Auger-Aliassime, Kim Clijsters, Andy Roddick, Nick Kyrgios and Sloane Stevens were just some of those quick to vocalise their support. But it was Frances Tiafoe and his girlfriend Ayan Broomfield who started a chain effect with their “small gesture to spread awareness about the unjust deaths of many African Americans … This is definitely bigger than tennis,” said Broomfield.
“It could have been the likes of any of my loved ones,” said Tiafoe of Floyd’s killing on a Tennis United episode dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement. “It could have been me.”
“Today, we put our racquets down and our hands up,” he said on social media. Tiafoe admitted to being “extremely nervous” about asking Williams to take part in #racquetsdownhandsup, but needn’t have been. He got the support of a slew of players, including Williams, Gael Monfils, Kgothatso Montjane, Jo Wilfred Tsonga, Heather Watson, Gauff and Donald Young, creating a powerful statement from the tennis world in support of Black Lives Matter.
“I think it’s sad that I’m here protesting the same thing that she did, 50-plus years ago” Gauff told a crowd of protesters in her hometown of Delray Beach in Florida in early June, pointing out her grandmother sitting behind her. Gauff said she’d been educating her “non-black friends on how they can help the movement”. It was a speech delivered as calmly as she dispatched Venus Williams in the first round of Wimbledon 2019, vaulting the then 15-year-old to instant stardom.
Taylor Townsend spoke frankly on the same Tennis United episode about what it’s like being black on the tour, from being confused for almost every other black player to having her credentials and bags – and those of her entourage – checked without fail at security “to make sure that I belong”.
“Even in the tennis world, it’s not a united place,” she said. “We lose our identity of who we are, because there can only be one. I’ve had people argue with me, to tell me that I’m Coco Gauff … Everybody sees a black person and they assume it’s Venus [Williams], Serena or Sloane [Stephens]. I’ve been literally all of them down the list, except for myself.
“Taking the time to be still and silent, and really think about how this has been happening for so long, and how it’s not right … I don’t expect things to change, so hopefully this just creates a safe space and an awareness for people to want to talk about it … and try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”
During this period of pause, players around the world appear to have realised the power they have to influence and change the world view of tennis fans and followers. It’s almost a pity that with the US Open committing to a start date of 31 August, the first tour event to do so, players will once again be turning their efforts to training and competing.