(Quick caveat: if you have already read my rant on this on some of my social media profiles, please excuse the overlap. But also please keep reading as this is a bit more extensive)
I love tennis. It is a sport for the family, with my grandfather and my father having played professionally, and my brother, aunt, uncle and several cousins enjoying it regularly. Wimbledon is like a holy fortnight. Every result must be followed, every good point given a standing ovation, every error a loud groan of sympathy. My housemates, unfortunately, know this all too well. When Andy Murray ended British tennis’s 77-year wait for a men’s singles champion, it was a moment of celebration for us too, never mind that we are not British. It helped that Murray had been fighting for this all of his career; his fighting spirit was nothing if not endearing.
The next morning, London was a city that seemed to be celebrating. Signs on the Underground, instead of pointing out signal failures, were showering their congratulations on Murray. Calls for knighthood were being made. And then, ever so slowly, a photo began to make the rounds on the internet. With my ineptitude for technology, I am not sure how to attach it here, but it shows Virginia Wade, women’s singles champion in 1977, with the caption – “Andy Murray, the first Brit to win Wimbledon in 77 years… unless women are people, too… Virginia Wade (UK), Ladies’ Single Champion, 1977”. And with the possibility of a woman’s achievements being swept under the rug again, social media seems to have exploded with cries of outrage.
The problem is that this outrage is being targetted in the incorrect way. Several things bug me about this new meme. Starting with what is the smallest point, which is that the fact stated is incorrect, ironic for a meme correcting an oversight. Apparently, Wade was the last Brit before Murray to win according to the photo. Not true. Jonathan Marray won the men’s doubles last year. Jamie Murray won the mixed in 2007. Wade wasn’t even the last woman – Jo Durie won the mixed in 1987. The outrage is completely bypassing a real issue in the sport, which is the inequality for the doubles players, who get paid less, get less media coverage but play an equally difficult and potentially more complex game.
Another problem I had was that Wade was not ignored at all. She was there throughout the Championships, being introduced as the 1977 champion. Surely, if she was actually being introduced as a winner, she could not have simultaneously been ignored as such. Articles did the same. BBC pointed out that Murray’s 77-year win, on the 7th day of the 7th month, created some nice symmetry with Wade’s win in ’77. Laura Robson, the first British woman to reach the fourth round since Sam Smith in 1998, was seen as a genuine contender for the title, to follow in Wade’s footsteps, but the column inches and screentime given to her have been conveniently ignored too.
Sports coverage works in a way that different versions of each sport are considered separate. When Marion Bartoli was called the first player to win Wimbledon with a two-handed forehand, it was correct because the reference to Wimbledon is for her specific event. Otherwise, Yan Zi would have beaten her to it when she won the doubles in 2006. Maria Sharapova’s completion of the Career Grand Slam last year was the first since Serena’s – unless you count Federer’s and Nadal’s, which you do not because they play a different event. The US women’s gymnastics team at last year’s Olympics was credited as the first from their country to win gold, again ignoring the men’s win in 1904. Which is fine, because they are different events. People have been pointing out that various newspapers said the 77 year wait is over. And this is true, because these articles follow the conventional usage of sports coverage which implicitly separates events. The outrage seems to be stemming from people who are ignoring how sports commentary works. People are kicking up a fuss because they want to.
These are all problems which are, in the long run, minor. Sports jargon and coverage might change. People might remember the double’s winners too at some point. And people who say that their support of the photo is a point of perspective – an entirely valid statement – can be talked to without losing any friendships along the way. The real problem is that this response is creating a bad name for the very noble cause of creating a world of equality for both women and men. The number of people who are blindly championing this photo without understanding the intricacies of the sport are damaging their cause. The photo is incorrect – whether you consider it purely factually (Wade not being the last champion, male or female, before Murray) or technically (the way men’s events are considered separate from women’s in mainstream sports coverage) – and by supporting it simply because it is a women’s issue is demeaning to the cause.
Instead of jumping at shadows, feminists should be outraged at the vitriol on Twitter aimed at women’s champion Bartoli by men for not being “pretty” or “blonde”. Several of these comments are genuinely terrifying and border on being threats. Insults hurled at her include “bitch”, “slut”, “pig” and “whore”. Even John Inverdale, the presenter for BBC’s Today at Wimbledon, called her unattractive, though he has since apologised to both the public and to Bartoli personally. Yet, after Murray’s win, this shocking treatment of a very deserving and talented player who should serve as an inspiration for millions of girls has been brushed under the same rug that Wade’s achievement was supposedly forced under. Feminists should also be outraged at the statements made by Serena Williams when she implied that the victim of a rape case in the USA was at fault. It should not – indeed, does not – matter that Williams is a woman herself; what she said was wrong by any standard this world adheres to. Yet, these two horrible cases within the same sport causing so much controversy are being ignored.
The fight for equality is the noblest cause there is, whether it is equality for women, sexual minorities, ethnic minorities, the impoverished or indeed any group that is oppressed. People need role models in this day and age. Women need Bartoli, or someone like Haifaa Al-Mansour, the female director from Saudi Arabia who defied the inherent sexism of the society there to pursue her dreams. Women also need to stand up to the likes of Bartoli’s detractors. What people should not do is focus on the wrong things – only one winner will emerge from that and no one will be better off for it.