Women’s Tennis Association Under Fire for ‘Sexist’ Best-Dressed Poll

Elena Sheppard
Wellness Editor
Carina Witthoeft of Germany plays against Elina Svitolina of Ukraine at the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships in London on July 7. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Women’s Tennis Association is facing Internet backlash for a tweet it sent out to its 660,000 followers. The tweet shows images of five female tennis players and features a call-to-action asking for people to vote on the best-dressed female player at Wimbledon. The tweet then links to a poll on the WTA website, which shows a rundown of the regulation all-white outfits players from Kristina Mladenovic to Petra Kvitova are wearing on the grass courts, citing details of the athlete’s outfits like “feminine flair” and “feminine pleats.”

“Seriously WTA?” one user commented. “They’re athletes, talk about their achievements not their appearance.” “Stop asking people to objectify these incredible athletes and don’t diminish their talent to who looks best in a dress,” another user wrote. Another user asked, “Is there a Mens Best Dressed competition too??” Editor’s note: There is not. The WTA did not return Yahoo Style’s request for comment.

The relationship between sports and sexism is one that is well documented and, unfortunately, ever-growing. A recent study from the University of Missouri found that media microagressions against female athletes rose 40 percent from 2012 to 2016. These microagressions include sexual objectification, worse treatment for female athletes than male athletes, sexist jokes or language, and focusing on female athletes’s physical bodies rather than their athletic achievements.

One of the study’s authors, Cynthia Frisby, PhD, an associate professor in strategic communication at the Missouri School of Journalism, spoke to Yahoo Style about the WTA tweet. “This tweet corresponds directly with the work [we did] in that it shows clearly how female athletes are rarely known for their athletic accomplishments and more for their appearance. I also noted the photos,” she says. “Emphasis on body parts and how a female looks in the shorts? It is objectification at its finest.” Frisby also notes the lack of diversity in the images: “Why are the athletes they chose all Caucasian,” she asks.

Tennis has a complicated history with sexism and gender. Though tennis has been played by women for centuries, in the 21st century, women are still dealing with sexism on the courts. In 2015, a male television interviewer asked tennis stars Eugenie Bouchard and Serena Williams to “give us a twirl” after they had won their respective matches at the Australian Open. There is also a pervasive mindset that men’s tennis is just more important than women’s tennis, even as women’s matches sell out more quickly than men’s. Former champion Raymond Moore famously said that female tennis players “ride on the coattails of the men,” and player Novak Djokovic issued a non-apology apology after he said that he felt female tennis players faced challenges like “the hormones and different stuff.” As recently as this month, sexism dominated tennis headlines, when former player John McEnroe commented on the level of Serena Williams’s skill. “If she played the men’s circuit she’d be, like, 700 in the world,” he said.

If that weren’t enough, Wimbledon is under scrutiny for the way it scheduled the men’s and women’s matches this year, with research showing that Wimbledon organizers favor men’s matches over women’s matches. As an article in the Guardian put it, “Give the men better billing than the women, structure the event so that the men’s singles is treated as the main event and the women’s as a sideshow, and then act surprised when the casual tennis fan is more familiar with the men’s game and holds it in higher esteem.”

There are some advances happening with regard to sexism in tennis — for example, women and men in tennis are paid more comparably than in any other sport, though notably they are still not paid equally. That said, women clearly continue to face an uphill battle to be taken seriously. While something like a tweet about outfits might seem inconsequential, the reality is all of these tiny moments work together to form the way in which female athletes and their sport are perceived. And if a women-led organization, like the Women’s Tennis Association, is focusing on the clothing of female players, that sends a message about what is important. If those women are focusing on the aesthetics and not the game, what is to stop other people from doing that too?

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