"If tournament directors or whatever, referees, think this way... " started Dinara Safina during the 2009 edition of Wimbledon. She trailed off, but there was nothing else she needed to say. On the fourth day of that Championships, Safina had been moved to Court 2 to facilitate a young Caroline Wozniacki´s 6-0 6-4 Centre Court drubbing of Maria Kirilenko, who had featured in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition earlier that year.
A day later, it was Serena Williams' turn to plot her journey to Court 2 as the main stadium was occupied by a similarly young Victoria Azarenka and an Ana Ivanovic-lookalike, Sorana Cirstea. The pattern was clear enough.
Six years on, it seems that those in charge of Wimbledon scheduling don't think this way today. Rather, they seemingly don't think of the women whatsoever. After the conclusion of the seven mixed days of play, not one has started with more than one women's match slated for the top two courts.
To be precise, after the first seven days of Wimbledon in which both male and female players competed on the same day, 41 men's singles matches featured on the top three courts compared with 28 women's singles. In the process, the top women's players have been shoved onto the lower courts.
Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark celebrates after winning her match against Camila Giorgi of Italy at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London, July 4, 2015
Image credit: Reuters
It's difficult to imagine any top 20, multiple men's Wimbledon champion ever failing to see one of the top two courts before the second week, but this is how an unamused five-time singles champion Venus Williams was treated before facing her sister. One of the most successful Wimbledon champions in history spent one of her final appearances there passing the time away on Courts 2 and 3.
“You only get one woman's match on Court 1 and Centre Court. Most of last week it was only one woman's match on Court 2 as well,” said a frustrated Caroline Wozniacki on Monday. “It's definitely different. That's all I can say. I think a lot of us women feel like we deserve to play on the big courts in front of a big crowd as well.”
The tournament's responses to comments like Wozniacki's have always been predictable, sticking resolutely to the line that the scheduling is made to protect the grass. Somehow, those responsible are under the impression that this actually justifies the shunning of the women from the top courts rather than highlighting how disposable the female players are to them.
The tabloids have been predictable, too, universally branding Wozniacki's comments as the “spark” to ignite a “sexism row”. In reality, the spark in the sexism row was the actual act of the tournament reminding the women that they are inferior in all aspects. The Dane simply pointed out the obvious.
Particularly at a tournament with both men and women playing in the same event, under the same tennis association in the form of the ITF, they should surely be equal. Treating the women as inferior for all the world to see only reinforces attitudes and ensures the relatively small gap between the two tours can never be bridged.
All the while, Tuesday's ladies' quarter-finals showcased four engrossing matches, and the battle of the day between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka produced perhaps the single best match of the year. For two hours, the pair traded winner after winner. First, Azarenka announced herself with some of the best tennis she has ever played to take a steaming first set, then Serena hit back, problem solving rather than attempting to hit the Belarusian clean off the court.
By the beginning of the second set, both players were on fire. The points lengthened and required every ounce of athleticism from both, the decibels sky-rocketed. One game lasted for an eternity, points unanimously finished with scorching winners and a thrilled crowd laughed mid-point at the intensity of the grunts that boomed across the entire grounds. This was a heavyweight battle and one of the first times in 2015 that two slam champions in either tour had faced each other and radiated pure quality.
After all her effort, Azarenka could only watch in the final game as serve after serve passed her. Arguably the greatest player in the history of tennis dusted off assuredly the greatest serve to send 17 aces crashing down. It was too much, too good, and even through all her stubbornness, Azarenka was well aware she had been beaten by a better player.
Azarenka very understandably sought some recognition and validation for her level and the show the pair put on, and so when the grunting question was asked of her, she snapped back with a mixture of tiredness and exasperation alongside a rare exhibition of logic.
US player Serena Williams serves to Belarus's Victoria Azarenka
Image credit: AFP
“I'm so tired of these questions all the time,” she ranted. “It's so in a way annoying because guys grunt. I was practicing next to Nadal, and he grunts louder than me, and nobody notice that. Why? I don't understand why. Because the women on the court both trying their hardest and giving everything they have, and they make a noise. Is that a problem (for) tennis?”
“We got to look a little bit past that and see, oh my God, Serena played 24 aces,” she continued. “Did any of the guys do maybe in that match? Look at the good stuff. Stop bringing this ridiculous stuff. Let's put aside the noise and how she looks, and look at the game. The game proved itself today.”
When female players work hard to reach the biggest tournament in the world, many feel like they are seen as inferior to the men. When a female player throws down their all and contributes to a glorious match between two champions, she feels people are only interested in petty side issues or, as Azarenka tellingly added, their physical appearance.
The sad fact is that WTA is, by light years, the most popular and successful women's sport in the world. So this, apparently, is the most female athletes can hope for; this is as good as it gets.
Tumaini Carayol at Wimbledon