This article appeared in Diva Magazine in June 2018
Back in 2014, I wrote an article for Diva Magazine about Amélie Mauresmo, a former World No 1 tennis player. She had just been appointed coach to Andy Murray, which rocked the tennis world since it was the first time a woman, let alone a lesbian, had coached a top ten male player.
Mauresmo came out back in 1999 when she was just a 19-year-old and new on the circuit. When the press asked her about her personal life she stated very casually that she had a girlfriend, naively assuming that it wouldn’t be a big deal. The backlash from fellow players, the public and the press was vitriolic.
By 2014, and as Murray’s newly appointed coach, one would have thought that would all have been forgotten, but out came those twitter trolls, fuelling the flames…
“Good to see Andy Murray pick a coach who’s ten times more masculine than most fellas out there” was just one example.
And then a year later, Ukrainian player Sergiy Stakhovsky spoke out. He stated categorically that there were no gay players on the men’s tour. “We have a normal atmosphere. On the other hand, half the women players are lesbian and for that reason I wouldn’t let my daughter play the game.” God help his daughter if she does turn out not to be straight.
Then last year the film Battle of the Sexes was released, coinciding with the Margaret Court fiasco. For those of you who missed all this, I’ll do a quick recap.
Battle of the Sexes featured that lesbian icon, Billie-Jean King, and her match against a rather absurd and blatantly sexist man called Bobbie Riggs who claimed women were lousy players and that even a 55-year-old man (i.e. him) could beat the World No 1 woman player. Happily, Billie-Jean won their match and put that notion to bed. But the film was also about her personal journey and her struggle to come to terms with her sexuality. It’s a brilliant film, which I thoroughly recommend.
Hard on the heels of the film came that “Margaret Court fiasco” which was about Court’s response to the Australian same-sex marriage bill. She is a former World No 1 player turned pastor. “I believe in marriage the bible way; tennis is full of lesbians” and, get this one, “Transgender children are the work of the devil.” If these views weren’t so dangerous, they’d be funny.
Then it all got rather juicy. The Aussie Open was coming up in January and players started asking for one of the main stadiums, the Margaret Court Arena, to be stripped of its name in protest.
What would the organisers have done if one of the top players had refused to play on the court? Would they have scratched them from the tournament? Would they have quietly put them on another court hoping it wouldn’t get out, which of course it would have done?
By now we were all waiting with bated breath. A number of players, although they are widely thought to be lesbian, are not open about it. Were any of them going to use the opportunity to come out and make a statement?
After all, Martina Navratilova stated in an interview ”I would certainly like to see more players come out. With each passing celebrity or athlete coming out, it becomes less of a big deal and that’s eventually what we want it to be, for it just not to matter.”
I chatted to former County player and coach Mandy Sargent about all this and her reaction was, quite sensibly, “Of course we want role models, but it shouldn’t be forced on them. A duty to come out? Everyone has a duty to do what the hell they want. OK, they might feel better about themselves and it could be good for their game as they wouldn’t be hiding something, but how dare we tell people what to do without knowing their personal circumstances.”
In the event, no-one came out and, as far as we know, no-one refused to play on the court. The openly lesbian player, Casey Dellacqua, then stated quite simply “Margaret, enough is enough.” and things calmed down.
But it does appear that the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) and the sponsors have worked hard to “feminise” the sport for marketing purposes and being gay or “unladylike” conflicts with the desired image they are trying to sell.
When Amélie Mauresmo initially came onto the tennis scene, for instance, she always wore shorts at her matches and she looked great. One week after the whole lesbian furore, she was in a skirt. It made me want to cry. Clearly her sponsors had directed her to do so. Too bad if it felt uncomfortable and affected her game.
While I was researching for this article, I decided to google “lesbians+tennis” just to see who was actually openly lesbian and I found some pretty conflicting lists, many of them just appearing to be speculation.
And then, while I was browsing, I spotted something quite astonishing – a headline which read: “Venus Williams Comes Out, Discloses Lesbian Relationship” in what appeared to be a legitimate website called Empire Sports. After a bit more research, I realised that it was a fake news site; but it could have gone viral on facebook/twitter and, although she’s straight, forced Williams into explaining herself to her sponsors. After all, endorsements have a habit of disappearing when there’s a whiff of any “lesbian scandal”.
The “lesbian scandal” pertaining to female tennis players appears to just run and run. Of course it would be wonderful if, as Navratilova says, “it becomes less of a big deal and for it just not to matter” but as long as the “feminising” sponsors are around, it won’t happen.