Back in 2016, on the day before Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka were to play the women’s singles final in Indian Wells, the then tournament director of the event, Raymond Moore, created quite a controversy for himself.
Moore, who was interviewed on the eve of the final, went on to say, “You know, in my next life, when I come back, I want to be someone in the Women’s Tennis Association because they ride on the coattails of the men. They [women’s players] don’t make any decisions, and they are lucky. If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were born because they have carried this sport. They really have.”
Moore’s verbal overstepping in an attempt to come off as glib cost him his standing – and position – within the global tennis community. But, the harsh reality is that women’s tennis, in spite of the denigration it has experienced and overcome, continues to be regarded as an adjunct to its male counterpart. Though, now it has been couched overtly, lest the discussion veers out of control for moderation.
The Venus and Serena Williams factor
Every Women’s Day, invariably, the women’s side of the game throws up a few customary names and a handful of anecdotes associated with them as a reminder of the acknowledgement of their contribution. This year, the retelling of such nostalgic description has been overseen by the Williams sisters, each of whom who has presented a divergent – yet – intersecting narrative to the tale of women’s tennis.
Though Serena Williams’ late withdrawal in Indian Wells has led to a reshuffling in the women’s draw, her decision to play again in the tournament in 2015 after having boycotted it for 14 years – even after two years – still sends off a powerful message. So does her sister, Venus’ decision to follow suit, ending a racially-motivated stand-off with inclusiveness.
Encompassing almost the length of the longevity of their careers, Venus and Serena Williams’s coming of age tennis story and their larger-than-life personalities is then gathered into a career – and life – defining nutshell, at the Indian Wells.
The handing of the baton
It has been nearly forty-four years since Billie Jean King, an audacious and self-styled revolutionary, established the WTA with the intention to end the gender-based disparity in the two sections of the game, and towards enabling women’s tennis on an equal footing with that of the men’s, especially on the monetary front. The US Open, the first to acknowledge her initiative, helped partly achieve her objective when it offered parity in its prize money to both its men’s and women’s singles champions, commencing at the 1973 edition of the tournament.
While the Australian and French Opens followed suit, in the succeeding years, Wimbledon, much-coveted as it is steeped in its traditions, had no qualms in remaining the sole exception to the equal prize money debate for the longest running time.
And, in a way, its continuance to hold on to its traditional ways was also indicative of the players being (inadvertently) remiss in having the tournament face up to its responsibilities.
For, in the decades since Jean King left the mainstream tennis arena, while there had been no stopping of the influx of women entering the tennis domain, rarely was there a voice raised as stridently as the American towards effective bridging of this detractive gap, between one Major and the others.
That is, all except for Jean King’s fellow countrywoman and the elder Williams sibling, who took it upon herself to address the imbalance before finally getting the point across to the All England Club that organises the tournament, which too started awarding an equal prize cheque in 2007. Coincidentally, Venus Williams won that year, defeating France’s Marion Bartoli in the final.
Bridging the past and the future
Aside of the prize money aspect, while most players still maintain a stoic silence on topics that move away from tennis into the social diaspora, the Williams sisters are leading from the forefront there as well.
Then, be it the 23-time Grand Slam champion making pointed references to the sexist connotations prevalent in the current global society, and repeatedly challenging and questioning them head-on. Or be it the seven-time Major winner diffusing worrisome remarks about her racial heritage with her subdued elegance, without letting it affect her on-court performance.
In that, the Williams’ are proving to be a bridge connecting tennis’ present and future to its seemingly long-lost past. Most specifically, to Althea Gibson, the player who changed the face of women’s tennis long before it could accept that it needed to be changed and in ways it hadn’t even considered modifying itself, extending beyond to just one special day in which to recount the absoluteness of its feel-good poignancy.