Dhruvan Nair, Undergraduate Batch of 2021
1932 was a landmark year for tennis. It was the first time that a player replaced the traditional cricket flannels with a pair of white shorts and much to the awe of the then tennis associations, it was discovered to be much more comfortable and suitable for the sport. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before someone thought of it but it was Henry Austin who pioneered the change. A perennial conception of ‘sports’ has been that it possesses the ability to transcend time and space, that all one needs is to understand the way it is played and then by following these directions, everybody could play it. So, what of tennis?
A brief history of the sport quite clearly reveals that the current version of the sport traces itself back to the ‘noble’ classes in both France and England and this precursor form is now referred to as ‘real tennis’ or otherwise called the ‘sport of kings.’ It is inevitable that the rules and customs for the contemporary version of the sport would be devoid of any influence from its predecessor and perhaps there is not a more fitting example than the English Grand Slam tournament, Wimbledon. It still remains the only slam which adheres to the archaic rule that the players must participate with an all-white attire. This includes hair bands, socks and other minor accessories as well. Another distinct feature of Wimbledon is its extremely traditional award ceremony where even to this day, Prince Edward, The Duke of Kent who symbolizes the royalty’s or the Queen’s presence in the ceremony, presents the trophies to the winners.
These customs and rules are also accompanied with certain set modes and standards of both conduct and sporting style. This is much more prominent for women players. In her best days, Martina Navratilova enjoyed an incredibly successful period on the court, that includes 18 singles titles, 31 doubles titles, and 10 mixed doubles titles. However, she was constantly under fire for “not being feminine enough” for women’s tennis and was often compared to the then notion of the ‘ideal’ women’s player, Chris Evert. Navratilova’s sexual orientation too was heavily criticized for hindering the Grand Slam champion from living up to those values. The male players are expected to portray ‘gentlemanly’ characteristics on the court. This put figures such as 17-time grand slam champion, John McEnroe in a tough spot for his on-court antics such as complaining to the chair umpire about him being disturbed by the constant boos from the crowd or occasionally delaying his serve. Coincidentally, McEnroe’s rise in the sport was at a time when Bjorn Borg had established himself as the then undisputed king of the court. Borg was known for his impeccable on-court discipline and hence, was often pitted against McEnroe as a clash of the opposites and media outlets from across the globe had a feast building up an “Iceman vs Superbrat” narrative.
It’s been ages since the days of Navratilova and McEnroe, and the world has seen drastic changes in societal norms over the last few decades. There has also been a great breakdown of numerous traditionalist notions with the rise in political awareness and individual activism fostered by the internet. One would imagine, the effects would have also inevitably impacted the sport as well.
In this year’s edition of the US Open, number 1 seed Novak Djokovic was defaulted from his Fourth-Round match against Spaniard Pablo Carreño Busta, for accidentally hitting the ball at the line judge in the throat, as it was deemed as violent conduct that emerged as a reaction to dropping a crucial game in the first set. This was not the number one seed’s first incident to find space on the back page. However, his disqualification became yet another controversy to have sullied the American Grand Slam. Djokovic might not be regarded as one of the most ideal personalities on the court, but it begs to implore however, whether the same decision would have been awarded to perhaps Roger Federer, who is arguably the most gentlemanly player to have graced the sport.
The same tournament was the stage for yet another controversy in 2018, in the Women’s Final in Serena Williams’ shock loss to Naomi Osaka, giving the latter her first Grand Slam title. However, more than Osaka’s maiden title, what became the talking point was the disciplinary measure taken against Williams, who was handed a $17,000 fine for three code violations, including coaching, breaking her racket and the “verbal abuse” of chair umpire Carlos Ramos. Williams responded by calling for action from the tennis community to combat and eradicate blatant sexism in the sport. Even in the years preceding this incident, Williams has endured a great amount of criticism from pundits and the media both for style of play and conduct. Since her first grand slam win at the 1999 US Open, she has been under constant fire for her style of play, which critics deemed was un-feminine. Her ability to stick to the baseline and release powerful forehands and backhands for a large duration of the game, are proclaimed to have offered her an unfair advantage in women’s tournaments. Her choice of sporting wear too has come under fire, with the latest example being the Nike ‘catsuit’ worn at the 2018 French Open, which she explained was meant to regulate body temperature after she had experienced post-pregnancy complications. The outfit was banned subsequently by the French Tennis Federation following the completion of the year’s edition of the slam.
In the midst of the media frenzy that overshadowed Osaka’s milestone victory, Martina Navratilova spoke on the incident in an opinion piece for The New York Times. She expressed that while “there is a huge double standard for women when it comes to how bad behaviour is punished,” what Serena did was still wrong and pointed out that chair umpire, Carlos Ramos who was just abiding by the rules was right in his reasonings for the point deductions. She further argued that tennis is a democratic sport and there is an equal responsibility entrusted on all genders to conduct themselves appropriately and adhere to the rules.
In many ways, Navratilova may be right in supporting the umpire’s decisions which were taken based on the rulebook in his hands. However, he is perhaps just a spectator in the grand scheme of things. Today, every sport to an extent, has managed to transition along with the socio-political vibrations of our times. Although, the fight for equal rights to be deemed for all genders is yet to be won, especially with respect to the pay gap. Beyond this, on the fields, it is the same manner of sport which all genders play, whether it be cricket, football or badminton. But when it comes to tennis, there are three set matches and a large anthology of rules and customs, yet to be checked for obsolescence. One wonders whether the decision to limit the number of sets played to three, for women, is based on the assumption that women’s tennis requires less physical strength, compared to that of men’s tennis. The brief history of the game from Navratilova to Williams, reveals that the player still struggles to find space for the ‘self’, crammed in between lines and lines of jargoned texts under article X and section Y. Many questions remain unanswered; would such a transition be possible, if so, who will bring about the change, and how and when will they accomplish it? The game is very much yet to be won.