Sarah Sands: Another Wimbledon, another year of ill-suppressed sexism

Sunday 06 July 2008 00:00 BST

On a hot Friday afternoon, I watched the men's semi-finals at Wimbledon. Marat Safin swerved from sublime confidence to Chekhovian despair in the match against Roger Federer.

Safin hurled his racket at his foot and at the chair, though his usual trick is to shatter it against the sole of his shoe. When things go well, he pulls down his pants, a particularly male form of genius: attention seeking, egotistical, breathtaking. Federer is cooler headed and more ruthlessly competitive. The better Safin played, the more Federer raised his game. The men were serving at 130mph and rallying with superb athleticism.

Then Rafael Nadal came dancing on to play Rainer Schüttler. More muscular energy and dazzling strength and range. Sure enough, as we filed exhilarated out of the court, there were mutters about the anticlimax of the women's final the following day.

The theme of men's vs women's tennis is age old. Only the terms of abuse have changed. Justin Gimelstob, a former mixed-doubles champion who sits on the board of the Association of Tennis Professionals, said last week that women's tennis had improved: "There are fewer lesbians now because they're all Russian chicks. And there's some other cute ones out there." He specifically recommended the "well developed" Nicole Vaidisova and the "sexpot" French players Tatiana Golovin and Alizé Cornet.

Gimelstob might have got away with it, were it not for his strangely expressed fantasy of serving balls into the stomach of Anna Kournikova and having his "stud brother ... nail her" in bed. As it was, he issued a gloriously corporate apology, talking of taking responsibility "for the words that came out of my mouth", as if they might have found an alternative orifice.

A milder version of Gimelstob's sentiments is mainstream public opinion. The urgent topics of debate about the female players this year have included Maria Sharapova's tuxedo jacket and shorts. I found my 16-year-old son transfixed by coverage of a women's match and asked if it was exciting. "Yeah, yeah, good," he nodded appreciatively. "Ana Ivanovic is really hot."

Of course those on the inside know now not to exhibit overt sexism. Pat Cash, who once described women's tennis as "two sets of rubbish that lasts only half an hour", gave a respectful talk about the players to watch on Friday without making any gender distinctions. Buster Mottram is seeking rehabilitation for his bracing opinion that women tennis players were too butch by making a programme about female tennis stars.

The bizarre response towards female tennis players is a heightened form of the quiet misogyny of public life. Women are applauded for being "hot" in a slightly menacing way, and derided for being serious. The winners are viewed with a kind of paranoia. I Googled the Williams sisters and found readers' comments caught up with speculation about steroid abuse.

After admiring a 132mph serve by Safin at Wimbledon, I asked my neighbour how fast women could serve. He smiled sympathetically and said they could not get above 80mph. Venus Williams has a recorded serve of 127mph. The magnificence of Venus is that she rises above it. Asked about Gimelstob's remarks she shrugged, "Yeah, I heard about them."

Some commentators and players will never accept the validity of women's tennis. The Williams sisters, like many women, have to prove themselves again and again and again.

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