Indian Wells is a resort town about two hours east (and a little bit south) of the Hollywood sign. It unveiled golf courses and resort hotels in the 1950s, officially incorporated in the late 1960s and basically exists to hold golf and tennis tournaments. Grass exists for golf courses and very little else.
Per recent census data, the median age of Indian Wells residents is about 67 years old. About 97 percent of citizens are white. Median household income is in the $80K to $85K range.
When it comes to the tennis world, then, Indian Wells both puts on one hell of a lavish tournament and occasionally fulfills every negative stereotype about both tennis fans and resort towns.
The BNP Paribas Open, a.k.a. the Indian Wells Masters, is indeed one of the biggest tournaments of the tennis year, maybe the single biggest outside of the four slams. It attracts nearly half a million in attendance, offers absurd prize money and boasts a ridiculous field. Either Novak Djokovic (five), Roger Federer (four) or Rafael Nadal (three) has won 12 of the last 13 men's tournaments, and while the women's draw has been mostly Williams-free in the 21st century, the field has still been strong enough to assure an elite champion most years -- Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka and Kim Clijsters have all won the tournament twice since the turn of the century. Justine Henin, Ana Ivanovic, Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep have also won.
This is a big event, and many in the tennis world adore it. On Sunday, after winning his fifth title, Djokovic waxed poetic about the Indian Wells tourney's charms. "I truly believe that this tournament deserves to be a level higher than it is now. Between 1,000 and grand slam there is nothing, but we could create something for Indian Wells."
Almost anything so pretty, however, tends to be hiding something pretty ugly. Fifteen years ago, when the din of "match fixing!" and "Dad determines the results!" cries was at its peak, Indian Wells was awfully ugly to the Williams sisters. Venus, 20 years old at the time, pulled out of a semifinal match against Serena, 19, citing a knee injury. No one believed her. When Serena came out for her finals match against Kim Clijsters, with Venus and their father Richard in the stands, the boos were merciless. Richard and Serena later asserted that they heard racist remarks thrown their way from the erstwhile genteel crowd.
Serena beat Clijsters in 2001, then didn't play there again until 2015. (She returned and, ironically enough, withdrew before her semifinal match with Halep because of a knee injury.) Venus returned in 2016.
Time evidently healed a lot of these wounds. And it happened just in time for another wound to open up.
At 35 years old, Venus Williams is still getting it done to some degree on the court. She's won 49 career singles titles, and despite countless injuries and a diagnosis with Sjögrens Syndrome (an auto-immune disorder) in the early 2010s, she is still a top-15 presence on the tour; she has won Wimbledon five times and the U.S. Open twice, and she reached the quarterfinals of two slams last year.
At this point, however, history might remember her as much for her fight for equality as her tennis exploits. Because of the Indian Wells incident (among others) and her mere presence in a sport dominated by white skin, she has been a symbol of the endless fight against racism and bias. But in the 2000s, she also became the spokesperson for equal pay on the women's tour. It wasn't only her fight, but she was the face of it, and it eventually reaped dividends. Though it isn't the case at every tournament, Wimbledon now pays equal amounts to both men and women. Reaching that point was an incredible victory for the women's tour.
This advancement wasn't without pushback, however. Men's tour members like Gilles Simon and Sergiy Stakhovsky (and plenty of others) have been open about this perceived injustice, pointing out that the men tend to draw bigger audiences and play best-of-five-sets matches at slams. And to say the least, men's tennis players have offered countless quotes regarding hormones, urges to have a family and other matters of which they maybe shouldn't speaking.
On Sunday, the day of both the men's and women's finals at Indian Wells (Serena Williams fell to Victoria Azarenka while Djokovic mauled an injured Milos Raonic), a couple more men offered quotes that were both cringeworthy and familiar.
In my next life when I come back I want to be someone in the WTA because they ride on the coattails of the men. They don't make any decisions and they are lucky. They are very, very lucky.
If I was a lady player, I'd go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born because they have carried this sport. They really have.
Moore quickly apologized once his words were made public, but word had already reached the finalists before match play began. And after the match, Serena came up with a shot as strong as her most dominant service return:
Well, if you read the transcript you can only interpret it one way. I speak very good English. I'm sure he does, too. ... We, as women, have come a long way. We shouldn't have to drop to our knees at any point. [...]
I'm still surprised, especially with me and Venus and all the other women on the tour that's done well. Last year the women's final at the US Open sold out well before the men. I'm sorry, did Roger play in that final or Rafa or any man play in that final that was sold out before the men's final? I think not. [...]
That is such a disservice to ... not only a female athlete but every woman on this planet, that has ever tried to stand up for what they believed in and being proud to be a woman.
Even if it wasn't intentional, or he chose his words poorly, or [fill in any other excuse for Moore here], Williams pretty clearly pointed out and shot down the latent (or very fully developed) sexism on display here. But I had two other thoughts about his comments as well:
1. Federer and Nadal carried the men's sport, too. If the WTA should be on its knees, literally or figuratively, at the alter of Rog and Rafa, so, too, should Raonic and Kei Nishikori and all the teenage up-and-comers on the men's tour. Star power in the ATP was waning at the turn of the century, and their must-watch matches and marketability -- along with the maturation and development of Djokovic, who is currently playing as well or better than either Federer or Nadal at their respective peaks -- raised prize money for everybody. If the women benefited from that, great; so did the men.
On the flip side, the men's tour probably benefited from the attention given to Williams' run at a Grand Slam in 2015. Indeed, the women's U.S. Open final sold out in a heartbeat, and with extra media on hand to cover the women's tournament, some of that coverage may have resulted in a bit more men's coverage, too.
2. You're either equal or you're not. Men's and women's tennis have existed, hand-in-hand, since the sport was invented. The first gentlemen's tournament at Wimbledon was in 1877, and the first women's tournament came seven years later.
From the start, coverage of the men's side was more significant; from a societal standpoint, I guess that probably made sense. But when you get a majority of the coverage, and when you get a majority of the attractive time slots, this almost becomes a chicken vs. egg argument: Does men's tennis get more viewers because it's superior or because it's always been given better opportunity?
Beyond chickens and eggs, though, this simply comes down to whether or not you want to treat entities as equals. Tennis says it does, but it can't if string-pullers like Moore continue to view women's tennis as a completely different sport riding the caboose that men's tennis has allowed it to have. As Amy Fetherolf put it in a Changeover piece in 2013, "Diminishing the women’s game will never strengthen the ATP Tour, and it will never strengthen tennis as a whole."
Yes, the ATP and WTA are completely different organizations. But the market for tennis is the market for tennis, not one organization or one gender. And in terms of TV ratings especially, the market probably isn't what it used to be. Broader promotion and a more open mind might be worthwhile pursuits.
Take the main counter-argument to gender equality in sport, and indeed the first response I received when I tweeted about the aeroplane seats issue [the English women's team flew economy to India for the WorldTwenty20 while the men's team flew business] a few days ago: since the men’s game generates far more revenue than the women’s game, it is only fair that the men should be rewarded accordingly. [...]
On the face of it, there is a certain logic there. Give more, get more. The problem comes when you follow the logical thread through to the end. For instance: should the well-off get preferential access to public services, given that they pay far more in tax? Should they be able to jump the queue in hospitals? Perhaps we could take this a step further still. Given that a millionaire contributes more to the economy than the guy who serves your latte in the morning, should their vote count for more? [...]
The point is this: sexism rarely gallivants around describing itself as sexism. It disguises itself in innocuous-sounding phrases: "revenue generation", "equality of opportunity", "economic realities", "the free market". These are used to keep discrimination in place long after the war for equality has superficially been won.
Djokovic found himself in a verbal trap similar to Moore's on Sunday, and as he began to sense that he was digging himself into a hole, he dug in further.
"You know, equal prize money was the main subject of the tennis world in the last seven, eight years. I have been through that process as well so I understand how much power and energy WTA and all the advocates for equal prize money have invested in order to reach that.
I applaud them for that, I honestly do. They fought for what they deserve and they got it.
So far, so good. Vanilla but solid.
On the other hand
I think that our men’s tennis world, ATP world, should fight for more because the stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men’s tennis matches. I think that’s one of the reasons why maybe we should get awarded more. Women should fight for what they think they deserve and we should fight for what we think we deserve."
Over the course of a paragraph, women went from fighting for what they deserve to fighting for what they think they deserve.
Djokovic is a gracious champion and well-regarded philanthropist. As Federer and (more significantly) Nadal have aged and become less effective, he has picked up the leadership mantel and done a sterling job. He's also got some paternalistic thoughts when it comes to gender. And he should have stopped right before saying, "On the other hand."
Males -- white males, especially -- got a pretty significant head start in most matters of sport. And as we're seeing in American politics as well, it's really hard to give up that power once you've gotten it. But you're either equal or you're not, and sometimes men need a better sense of when to shut the hell up.