Let’s imagine the following scenario. You are the CEO of arguably the fifth biggest tennis event on the entire planet. Your event, like the four Grand Slams, features the best players from both the women’s and men’s game, as evidenced by the finals, which feature Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Novak Djokovic and Milos Raonic.
Three of those four players have won multiple Grand Slams and are ubiquitous to the tennis world. Two of them are currently ranked number one. One transcends her sport and is known the world over simply by her first name. This is big. You have done your job, and so have the players.
So, on this final day, after almost two weeks of work, you hold a media session with the on-site press corps to discuss various matters surrounding your event. Again, this is a media session, and the whole thing is transcribed. Perfect chance to throw platitudes, talk about boring admin stuff and go watch the tennis, no?
Not if you’re Raymond Moore, the man who ran the PNB Paribas Open until late Monday night. Here’s what he said during that media session:
“[…] 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. 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.”
Why would you do this? Doesn’t this quote break every rule of what a CEO should say about his or her own product? Why do it on the last day of your event? It’s hard to understand how a smart, extremely experienced man like Moore could think those comments were acceptable. Or how he couldn’t foresee that his seemingly off-the-cuff moment would overshadow the crowning day of his own event.
Not surprisingly, Moore’s comments kicked up a controversy, transcending the sport of tennis to such a degree that it was rather remarkable Moore was still employed at the close of business on Monday. Yet when the clock struck 9:05 p.m. PT at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on Monday night, this happened:
Raymond Moore steps down as CEO and Tournament Director of the BNP Paribas Open https://t.co/r1ZViL2dhs
— BNP Paribas Open (@BNPPARIBASOPEN) March 22, 2016
Moore’s departure – and current Indian Wells owner Larry Ellison’s statement on that departure – seemingly should have brought the whole ugly episode to an end. And it very well might have, except for what happened in another press event that took place on Sunday.
Novak Djokovic, the all-dominant ruler of the ATP Tour, sat down for his postmatch press conference after collecting his record fifth Indian Wells title. When asked to respond to Moore’s comments, he opened up a Pandora’s Box that many thought was already closed:
Q: But you don’t think the prize money should be equal if it was up to you?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Listen, again, my answer to you is not yes and no. It’s [that] women should fight for what they think they deserve and we should fight for what we think we deserve. I think as long as it’s like that and there is data and stats available and information, you know, upon who attracts more attention, spectators, who sells more tickets and stuff like that, in relation to that it has to be fairly distributed.
On Monday, this idea was echoed by the ATP itself:
Asked ATP for comment on Moore/Indian Wells, received this statement (via email): pic.twitter.com/Y2CbmVuYWB
— Tom Perrotta (@TomPerrotta) March 21, 2016
If fans tune in to Grand Slams and assume men and women play and work together as part of the same cohesive organization, they have no idea how far from reality that is. Tennis is a baroque network of little fiefdoms stuck together with duct tape, but all you need to know for now, thanks to Djokovic and the ATP, is that the men see themselves as an entity entirely separate from – and almost independent of – the women.
It’s amazing how shortsighted this is. If we know anything about this convoluted sport, it’s that it’s extremely cyclical – there’s no surefire way to produce tennis superstars. No Roger Federer factory exists. The wealthy tennis nations have tried, building physical infrastructure and establishing all sorts of training programs. It hasn’t really worked. There will always be peaks and valleys in terms of the talent available. Just over a decade ago it was the men running to the women, desperate for a way to stay afloat by latching on to the Williams Sisters’ fame.
In terms of the future, it’s quite dangerous for the ATP to embark on this muy macho crusade when their biggest draw, Roger Federer, turns 35 in August and just had knee surgery. Rafael Nadal, mired in inconsistent results for over a year, turns 30 in June. Djokovic will turn 29 in just two months. While Indian Wells illustrated there are some promising 18-year-olds on the horizon, they’re still just 18-year-olds. Sure, Alexander Zverev was a simple volley away from knocking out Rafael Nadal in the fourth round at Indian Wells. And, yes, the American duo of Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe seemed to announce the birth of a new rivalry when they faced off in the first round of the tourney. But still, we’re talking about three teenagers. No one can reasonably predict how their careers will pan out.
In the present tense, yes, the men are enjoying an unprecedented Golden Era. But even during said Golden Era, last year’s US Open women’s final sold out faster than the men’s. Serena Williams remains an immense draw, and presumably Maria Sharapova will too, whenever she returns from her inevitable drug suspension. Furthermore, the women’s game is beginning to see the influx of a wave of young players – led by Belinda Bencic – who are already more accomplished than their teenaged ATP counterparts.
The ultimate goal for tennis seems to be fairly simple: both tours fused into one, cohesive, egalitarian entity. That mythical tour would not only embrace equality because it’s the decent thing to do – but for self-preservation reasons as well. Alas, in today’s landscape, that goal is probably a dream, which seemed very distant on Sunday, and by Monday afternoon, the ATP’s statement seemed to ensure it definitely won’t become a reality.
Tennis should know by now that both the men’s and women’s games need to help each other when they go through their inevitable low tides. But sadly, tennis is a dysfunctional, patriarchal family and the divide between those sides was there from the very beginning. We only tend to talk about it when people like Raymond Moore say dumb things, but Billie Jean King tried to build a bridge between the tours over four decades ago. She’s still trying to do it today, which says a lot about the stubbornness of this sport. Isn’t it time we finally move together as one?