Mailbag: Breaking Down the ITF's New Gender Equality Research

Publish date:

Hey, everyone.

• Michael Chang was our most recent podcast guest.

• Next up, ATP Chairman Andrea Gaudenzi….

Let’s start here. We had a few questions about the ITF’s “research project examining sports gender equality across the media and social media, commissioned as part of its ITF’s Advantage All gender equality strategy.” It was discussed here: 'Level the Playing Field' Global Forum. Quoting from the release:

The report found that the conversation and coverage of men’s tennis is more focused on the sport, with a strong combative narrative and a sense of history, elite competition and achievement. Conversely, the conversation around women’s tennis is less intense and relatively more focused on life off court, from health and age to family.

Key finding from Global English, France and Spain data include:

  • Women's tennis content is twice as likely to reference a player's age
  • Men's tennis content is twice as likely to refer to 'battle' terminology
  • Men's content is 70% more likely to mention a player's physical prowess
  • G.O.A.T was mentioned 50% more in men's tennis content than women's
  • There were 40% more references to 'making history' in men's tennis content
  • Women's tennis is over 2x more likely to mention health and medical treatment
  • Women's content is 30% more likely to refer to players' family
  • 'Career' is mentioned nearly 50% more in women's coverage than men's coverage
  • Women's content is nearly twice as likely to mention clothing vs men's content
  • There were 11x more mentions of skin colour in women's tennis
  • There were 3x as many mentions of Black Lives Matter in women's tennis

So…where to begin? I thought a wonderfully small, poignant moment came at the 2021 Australian Open trophy ceremony when Naomi Osaka turned to her opponent, and asked how she preferred to be addressed, Jenny or Jennifer. Osaka misheard the response, but that was beside the point. This was a display of empathy. Words matter. Names matter. The way we express ourselves and characterize others matters. This study would seem to be in service of that. Anything that makes us aware of bias—behavioral bias, subconscious, confirmation bias—ought to be applauded and considered.

But if words matter, data does as well. If we are being honest here, statisticians (and social psychologists) would be apoplectic over the “noise” here. When you read: There were 11x more mentions of skin colour in women's tennis,” that seems jarring, even appalling, at first; and then you realize that it is perhaps utterly reasonable on further examination. Two toweringly successful and popular black sisters have won 30 majors between them; there are a dozen other black women making their mark on the WTA Tour. Meanwhile, a black male player hasn’t won a major since the 1980s. (I would submit that if race weren’t mentioned exponentially more with respect to women’s tennis, it would suggest a much bigger problem.)

Likewise, one active female player (Serena) has won 23 majors, surpassing every player of the last 40 years. Meanwhile, three active men are at 18, 20 and 20 Majors. With that as context, is it at all revelatory that: “G.O.A.T was mentioned 50% more in men's tennis content than women's”? Two of the biggest players in the women’s game (from the largest media market studied) are 39 and 16, the outer edges of the age spectrum. Perhaps it therefore stands to reason that: “Women's tennis content is twice as likely to reference a player's age.” And short of corresponding data and context about which players use medical timeouts, the assertion “Women's tennis is over 2x more likely to mention health and medical treatment” is fairly empty.

I don’t want to discredit this. We should be happy this study was undertaken. We ought to consider language. We ought to address why the coverage of women’s sports so often misses the mark—both quantity and quality. We ought to strive to be on the right side of history. We ought to stop and think about some of the findings. For instance, writers and commentators and fans, the “battle terminology” is something to ponder. So is this discrepancy whereby WTA players stand accused of choking while ATP players are credited with fighting back…which tour is criticized for its upsets and which is praised for its depth…which players are given soft warnings and which are sanctioned for letter-of-the-law offenses….all of this is worth considering. But so is nuance.


Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

You really think Naomi Osaka can win the French Open?
Pierre T.

• Can Naomi Osaka win the French Open? ….Can Joe Manchin wield power on the floor of the Senate, disproportionate to the population of his state? Can a bar on a college campus play “Kids” by MGMT before the first order of mediocre wings comes out of the kitchen? Can Chipotle charge extra for guacamole? Can Sam Rockwell steal a movie?….Of course Osaka can win the French. Clay isn’t her choice surface. She’s 119-51 on hardcourts and 18-14 on clay. (Not just a considerable differential in percentage but a considerable differential in matches played.) Still, she is a fine athlete—and capable of competing so well—she’s at the point where she can win any event she enters.

Who is the Prince of the tennis world? (Active players or women)

Here’s a piece on Paisley Park and the Prince Vault. After this aired the other night, a few of you had fun on Twitter kicking this around. I came up with: Ash Barty for versatility. (Prince wrote the music, sang the music, played virtually every instrument, and could produce. He could do falsetto, of course, but also go low. He could do ballads; he could do funk; he could do sophomoric; he could do sincere.) Then, Nadal for sheer industriousness and hustle. (Prince was a workaholic who released only a small fraction of the songs he recorded.) Naomi Osaka for the endearing quirk. (No explanation needed.) Federer and Serena for staying power. (He got his first record deal from Warner Brothers at age 18. He was in his 20s when “Purple Rain” came out. When he died at 57 he was still selling more albums than any living artist.) Like a surprising number of players of note—Mardy Fish, Eric Butorac, David Wheaton, BMS, Bill Babcock, Beret Remak—he has the Minnesota provenance.

Prince was a huge sports fan. Some of you noted that he came to French Open 2014, dressed in purple and brandishing a scepter. (“He really pulls off the scepter,” a phrase you don’t hear much these days.) But his friends and bandmates say that he loved tennis and had considerable skills and interest in the sport. Man, what a talent. Man—five years this week—what a loss.

Can we please celebrate Nicole Melichar for cracking the top 10 in doubles after being stuck at No. 11 for seemingly forever?! Exactly how long was she in the 11th spot? And what are the records for longest stays at No. 11 in singles and doubles (both for players who, like Nicole, eventually reached the top 10 and those for whom 11 was their peak)? But mainly, let’s celebrate Nicole!
Quin, New York, NY

• Yes, celebrate Nicole Melichar. She and Demi Schuurs earned the doubles title in Charleston, enabling her to enter the velvet rope that is the top 10. Schuurs, ironically, is now No. 11—though she has been as high as No. 7. A call-out to our friends at the WTA: what’s the longest a player has peaked at No. 11 before entering the Promised Land?

Jon, what is going on with Davis Cup. I remember you saying that Laver Cup and ATP Cup was going to eat its lunch. Did that officially happen?
Carlos, London

• Funny you should ask. Just today this crossed my transom.

I’m not sure how adding Innsbruck and Turin as “hosts of the finals” is in service of the goal of streamlining the competition. But these are strange times and wide berths are given. The Davis Cup is still a “thing.” The market will tell us whether it can sustain three separate international competitions (all held within 100 days). I’m skeptical.

Part of this is tennis’s typical inability to get out of its own way. Part of it is that “nation on nation” seems at odds with the times. What was the big story this week? Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime—whose father is from Togo; who lists his residence as Monte Carlo—just hired Toni Nadal to join his team, having met while training in Mallorca. We’re internationalists here. This diminution of borders is a virtue in general—and a virtue of tennis specifically. But cuts against “our warrior versus your warrior” tribalism on which these competitions are predicated.

Why don't players wear sunglasses on court? Are they not allowed? Seems a vital accessory for most of us mere mortals. Why not for the pros?
Dominic Ciafardini, New York

• Great question. Every now and then you see players with shades. Sam Stosur, Ivo Karlovic, Janko Tipsarevic. You see a fair number of doubles players wearing shades. I’ve heard multiple explanations:

1) They’re clunky, physically, and even the models made for sports don’t work for singles, what with its unpredictable movements and lunging. There’s less distraction in a baseball cap which, of course, most players wear.

2) Players feel their depth perception is compromised; what they gain in protection they lose in clarity. Here’s the great Chanda Rubin weighing in: “Sunglasses are allowed and a few players do wear them. But it is debatable how much they help on a tennis court where there is a premium on picking up that little yellow ball as early as possible.”

Instead of talking tennis on the Beyond the Baseline podcast, you chose to talk about leftist identitarian politics for 80% of this episode.

• Man, is Twitter a toxic cesspool sometimes. Imagine hearing a podcast on which a former champion and Asian-American talks about his fear of violence and the bias besetting the Asian-American community, including a deeply unpleasant personal experience. And your takeaway is….to go social media, tag the player, and then complain about the content as being leftist and insufficiently devoted to tennis? (And, inasmuch as it’s identitarian, you know why? Because the bigots aren’t attacking you and me. They are identifying and targeting a specific subset.) Imagine being the person—using an alias, of course—who generates this alloy of cowardice, racism and general miserabilism in one trash tweet. More happily….

Full credit to you and Michael Chang for leaning in to the topic of hate crimes and aggression directed toward Asian-Americans. It was an interesting and important discussion. Toward the end of the podcast, you asked him the “What can we do?” question. In response, I’m writing to recommend taking some form of “bystander training.” Toward that end, Hollaback has developed some related resources that are pragmatic and useful: Bystander Intervention Resources. They have a free 1-hour online training course in bystander training that is outstanding. I took the course this past last week and found it super helpful. Although it speaks directly to the recent aggression towards Asian-Americans, the tactics generalize to other forms of bullying. I highly recommend it to you, friends, family, readers, and/or colleagues who want to help.
Jim Lenker, Buffalo, NY

• Thanks much. Happy to pass that on.

Shots, Miscellany

• Cleveland’s professional sports landscape will have a new look this summer as some of the top women tennis players in the world come to town for the inaugural Cleveland Championships, a WTA 250 event. Owned and managed by Cleveland-based sports agency Topnotch Management, the one-week tournament will feature some of the top stars of the game from August 22-28th as they make final preparations for the US Open.

• The Billie Jean King Cup by BNP Paribas is moving online with Tennis Clash. The International Tennis Federation (ITF) and Wildlife Studios have announced a new partnership that will bring the historic competition to the world's most popular mobile tennis game, Tennis Clash. In the week that was due to feature the inaugural Billie Jean King Cup by BNP Paribas Finals, fans will be able to connect with the event in alternative ways through an in-game tournament between April 15-18.

• Tennis Channel announcer Steve Weissman will continue to work with the network through 2025 as the result of a five-year contract extension. Weissman, who also hosts lead-in and post-match shows in addition to his play-by-play responsibilities, will remain the primary host of Tennis Channel Live, appearing in 90 percent of the conversational show’s annual editions. He has been with Tennis Channel since 2015.

The 2021 U.S. Open is nigher than you think.