10 July 2018

The battle of the sexes: Woman's Hour reports

Last week we reported on suggestions that the pro-game was sexist. But what happens at the grassroots of the game? The BBC's Woman's Hour team visited the courts at Highbury Fields in north London to find out

BBC Woman's Hour interview LTL players at Highbury FieldsWith accusations that tennis at the top level treats its women players unfairly, the venerable BBC Radio Four programme wanted to find out how things work out in Local Tennis Leagues where the battle of the sexes is an everyday part of the tennis we play.

Local Leagues founder Sally Kinnes was joined by league players Steph Day and Sally Noonan, both of whom have plenty of experience playing and beating men in the leagues. Reporting for Woman's Hour, Tina Daheley and producer, Elisa Kennedy

Click here to hear the Woman's Hour report in full 

The consensus was that at the local league level, men and women can compete on an equal playing field. "Originally I didn’t even think about the fact some of my opponents were going to be men," says Sally Noonan who runs a West End theatre. "What is interesting, is when I play a man I have to think a little bit more about my game. They do sometimes have a stronger serve or groundstrokes and that's challenging as you have to come up with different ways of playing them and be a bit smarter."

Was it a problem for the men if they are beaten by a man? "Generally beating a man  feels the just same," says Steph Day who plays in the Highbury League. "But sometimes the men do get a little bit frustrated when they start being beaten by a woman."

And here are some of the anonymous responses we received to our post last week:

should play five set matches, IS equal pay fair, and why don't men play women?

"Tennis, and by that I mean Wimbledon here, does not treat the sexes equally because the prize money is the same for men and women but men have to play 5 sets whilst women only play 3. The only way true equality would be achieved would be to abolish the male and female groupings and allow women to compete against and alongside men."

"The Slams should pull their finger out and give women the five set matches they want! Surely that would be the biggest indicator as to how they can perform over 5 sets. There also needs to be more gender interaction when it comes to the professional game. Maybe mini tournaments that include men and women. That will remove a lot of the stigma that surrounds the differences, and would provide evidence - it could be proven in McEnroe’s point about Serena is valid or not!"

"The top female athletes are more than capable of playing 5 sets and know that Serena and others have voiced this opinion in the past. But it was the traditionalist-minded tennis committees at the top level who said no. Perhaps we will always have sexist minded people who judge women's tennis to be of a poorer quality purely based on gender, but by making the sets equal you would eliminate a good chunk of the debate - on social media particularly - as to whether the equal pay is fair. As for men’s vs women’s singles, I'm not sure that's necessary. Men are obviously stronger even though a great female player could theoretically tactically outplay them. I know from experience that the arrogant male players lob balls directly at women and try to intimidate with power, which is sad but happens. Therefore, more value placed on mixed doubles and equal sets in mens and women’s tennis, together with other changes such as not treating pregnancy as an injury, I think is the way to go."

Having the larger physique, and without the burden of bearing children, men are more suited for competing in sports. This is not sexist; it is biology.

"Women should play 5 sets if they want to be payed the same as men in slams, women’s 5 sets would also make it more of a spectacle and increase its popularity"

"Women should play 5 sets. They are all over capable of this and would make it better to watch and follow with more consistent winners so the top seeds aren’t rotating so much. The break for over 30 degrees for just women is ridiculous and very sexist and shouldn’t be a thing in this day and age. Pretty sure the men wouldn’t object to the same rules!

"The men's game is why most people watch the tennis! If you had only women’s tennis there wouldn't be that much interest. Also most sports fans in general are male... men I think are being emasculated!"

Stereotyping: "In terms of five sets, not heard many women clamouring for it, they may have mentioned it a few times, but no one has organised any form of protest or strong desire to do it."
Unfair pay: "ATP and WTA are different tours run by different organisations. ATP seems to pay better because they have higher viewing figures which equals more lucrative sponsorships which equals bigger prize money. If the WTA wants higher pay they need to attract more viewers and better sponsors."
Treating pregnancy as if it were an injury: "Being injured isn't a choice, being pregnant is. You shouldn't just take a year off and expect your ranking to stay the same. If a male tennis player took a year off to support his wife after her pregnancy, the ATP wouldn't allow it either."
Gender imbalance: S"ure there are more male coaches, but is that sexism? Maybe. I remember the minor uproar when Andy got a female coach and she did a good job with him. What are the coaching levels at grassroots, maybe coaching is less interesting to females then it is to males?"
Men vs Women:"Women would get destroyed in the men's pro game. I remember when Venus and Serena said they would beat any man outside the top 200 and played Karsten Braasch and got beaten heavily. Sure it was a friendly set but more valid than Billy Jean King beating FORMER pro Bobby Riggs who had a gambling problem."
Miss, Mrs or Ms: "Old traditions die hard, I think everyone knows Serena is married. At least they got rid of calling the women by their husband's name. Now that was a stupid rule"
And what about us? "In LTL I've played multiple women and have always had friendly and have had competitive games with the women I have played. At my level there are many women who would give me a competitive match and more who would easily beat me without breaking a sweat."

"I like to see women being able to pursue what they would like to but I also like to see women being treated with respect - ie called ladies at Wimbledon. The fact that a number of women are 'happier / more comfortable' playing in LTL women's-only leagues suggests that some women prefer a separation of men and women's games. We should embrace our differences rather than force 'one mould for all'. On the issues of earnings and number of sets played - perhaps these need reviewing but not at the expense of the sport. Personally I find the high pitch screeching hard on the ears so prefer not to watch these games, along with games displaying poor sportsmanship or in appropriate attire (a cat suit springs to mind). There should be room for both the old (traditional tournaments such as Wimbledon) and the new (suggest a new gender neutral tournament) in the tennis world. This way players and spectators can decide what they want to play in or watch."