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Sexist remarks inflame tennis world

Mar 21, 2016, 8:07 AM EDT
Top-ranked Serena Williams shows frustration during her match against fellow American Sloane Stephens at the 2015 Indian Wells tournament.
Source: cvindependent/flickr

There’s no way to put a positive spin on the jaw-dropping comments that spewed from Raymond Moore’s mouth at a media session before Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka faced off in the BNP Paribas Open women’s final in Indian Wells, California this Sunday.

“I think the [Women’s Tennis Association] -- you know, 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,” said the Indian Wells director and CEO. “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. They really have.”

Moore, 69, may well have athletic reincarnation on his mind nowadays. The native South African had a respectable, if not illustrious, 15-year tennis career. With no singles title but eight doubles championships, he never ranked higher than No. 34 (in 1976). He hung on another seven years before retiring, so perhaps he was fantasizing Sunday as to what heights he could reach with the help of medical and technological advances expected in the not-too-distant future.

Sadly, no technology currently exists to prevent him from making outrageously sexist remarks just as his sport’s most recognizable player – of either gender – was to take the court. And while Federer and Nadal have been great, each seems on the downswing of his career. It’s almost as if Moore doesn’t realize that Andy Murray is currently ranked No. 2 in the world or that No. 1, Novak Djokovic, is considered among the best to have ever played.

But this really isn’t about the men – or at least it shouldn’t be. While inequality between pay and passion for women’s sports is an ongoing issue, women’s tennis has been a constant and notable exception. In fact, on a list of the 50 highest-paid athletes, the only women to have appeared are Williams and perennial rival Maria Sharapova.

And as for what tennis fans want on TV? It’s the women, hands down. Fact is Venus and Serena Williams were the players most viewed as key to reversing tennis’ slumping TV ratings.

So who exactly is riding whose coattails? The men have “carried the sport”? Where to? Near irrelevance?

The tennis community immediately had plenty to say – the overwhelming majority of it not good -- and social media so ripped into him, that Moore duly apologized in hope of tamping the firestorm.

But Serena, fresh from a disappointing loss to Azarenka, did not shy away from addressing the controversy. She pointed to the bit about “lady” players getting “on their knees,” noting that Moore’s rant should be taken as offensive by all women athletes, not just tennis players, even without that particularly gross piece thrown in.

Serena, considered by many the greatest woman player of all time, added that she had no idea what statistics Moore was looking at but that his assertion that the men were doing the heavy lifting could “not be more inaccurate.”

Her words were measured, though not without visible anger: “Last year, the women's final at the US Open sold out well before the men. 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.”

Left unsaid, but certainly understood by her fans and most of those involved in the game, is that Serena stands a better-than-average chance of reaching the US Open final again this year – just as there’s a better-than-average chance that Raymond Moore’s foot-in-mouth claim will be revisited when it proves to be dead wrong yet again.