‘Sledging’, Sport and Sexism

A guest post by R.M. Christofides

A tennis match got a little uncivilised recently. At the
Canadian Open in Montreal earlier this month, an already feisty second round
tie between Stan Wawrinka and Nick Kyrgios took an ugly turn, one that reveals
the extent to which the perception and portrayal of women in sport is still defined
by their gender first and their profession second.

Kyrgios, in the jock language of the dressing room, pointed
out that his fellow Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis had once been involved with
Wawrinka’s current girlfriend, tennis player Donna Vekic. Viral before the
match had even ended, this on-court ‘sledging’ prompted yet more criticism for
Kyrgios, who rolls from one controversy to another like a pinball rattling in
the bumpers, and sympathy for the popular Wawrinka. The Swiss, who elevated
himself into the tennis pantheon with his backhand-heavy demolition of Novak
Djokovic in the French Open final this year, was the one seen as the wronged
party. In turn, Kokkinakis admitted that he himself had suffered in the
aftermath of the slur, his own on-court contretemps with Ryan Harrison at the
Cincinatti Masters attributed to the stress of a difficult week. Vekic, a
rising star of the women’s game, has hardly been part of the very public conversation,
reduced to a commodity in the competitive exchange between two (then three)

On the surface of things, the sledging may not seem like a
very tennis-like affair. The normally diplomatic doyen of the game, Roger
Federer, pointedly stated that tennis ‘was not used to that kind of talk’. But
the alleged inferiority of women is built into the sport’s structures. Since
2008, on-court coaching has been allowed to female players outside the four
Grand Slams, something not allowed to men in any event and something soon to be
expanded with statistical analysis made available to coaches. On-court coaching
rests on the assumption that professional tennis players who are female cannot independently
strategise without the aid of a – usually male – coach. Men can, seemingly,
work out their opponents for themselves. Andy Murray’s choice of a female coach
in Amelie Mauresmo raised eyebrows precisely because it transgressed coaching
gender norms. All this in a sport in which convention still dictates that women
play best of three sets at the Grand Slams rather than the best of five men
play. The sledge heard around the world may well be the kind of talk of which
the tennis community rightly disapproves, but behind the maximum fine handed
down to Kyrgios by the ATP and the opprobrium sent his way lies the fact that
to be a women is, by virtue of the laws of the game, to be inferior to men. Kyrgios’s
words were, in this sense, the vulgar expression of a pervasive inequality.

In the same week as the Kyrgios-Wawrinka spat, football’s
latest moral crisis has been the treatment of a female doctor. Both Jon Fearn
and Eva Carneiro were demoted for treating a player on the pitch, despite being
beckoned on to the field of play by both the player himself and the referee. Carneiro,
frequently the subject of sexist abuse from the terraces, has been the one who
has since been in the headlines. In no time at all, the inevitable
kiss-and-tell from an ex-boyfriend surfaced along with descriptions of Dr
Carneiro’s ‘pre-Raphaelite’ looks and allegations of an affair with a player,
fusing sexist stereotypes with racist stereotypes of the hot-blooded
Mediterranean lover. Also bizarre was the fuss made about the Chelsea manager,
Jose Mourinho, swearing either at her or in her presence, as if her fragile
sensibilities would be terminally offended. Rather than an opportunity for the
football community to discuss the perception and position of women in football,
the insensible demotion of Fearn and Carneiro has simply allowed football
writers to churn out the same article about Mourinho that they have been
writing for a decade. Mourinho the paranoid dictator; the brilliant but
ruthless autocrat. I confess my own guilt in this tendency to reduce every
issue in football to a function of the limitlessly complex psyche we project on
Mourinho. But the real issue here is that a predominantly male sports media
reproduces, rather than interrogates, the unthinking prejudices of the terraces
and the dugout.

Kyrgios’s sledge and the media focus on Carneiro both
demonstrate an ongoing prejudice that still gets sidestepped: women in sport
are too often considered just that – women
in sport, not sports players first and foremost, not professionals, not
tacticians or experts.

R.M. Christofides is a literary scholar and the author of ‘Shakespeare and the Apocalypse’


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