Serena Williams coattails carrying a pretty heavy load when it comes to promoting tennis around the world

Perhaps we should not be surprised that a 69-year-old white man from South Africa is not a great source of enlightenment on issues of equality.

And yet, the comments on Sunday from Raymond Moore (who reportedly resigned as tournament director and chief executive of the Indian Wells tennis tournament late Monday night) were still beyond what we have come to occasionally expect in sports, where dudes overwhelmingly remain the focus.

Moore, if you are late to this, said that the WTA — the women’s pro tour — “ride(s) on the coattails of the men” and that a “lady player” should “go down every night on (her) knees and thank God” that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were born because they have carried the sport.

It is particularly perplexing that the director of a prestigious American tournament would say such things because if you asked a casual tennis fan to name three active American players, the answer would be: Serena Williams, Venus Williams, and I don’t know can you give me a hint? James Something? Those twins that used to have long hair but don’t anymore?

Serena, on the other hand, is a global star, full stop. At Wimbledon in July and the U.S. Open in September, her matches easily had as much attention on them as anything the men did, as her Grand Slam bid fell a couple of victories short. If anyone was riding the coattails of those tournament’s most dramatic moments, it was the guys in shorts.

Wimbledon also had its annual “sexism row,” as the British press fanned stories about equal prize money, court locations and heat breaks for the women into mild controversies. Williams was a dismissive of those as she was of Moore on Sunday, calling his comments a disservice to women, and saying “we shouldn’t have to drop to our knees at any point.”

Serena-Williams-coattails-carrying-a-pretty-heavy-load-when-it-comes-to-promoting-tennis-around-the-world

But this isn’t about which tennis draw is more interesting at the moment. Serena Williams’s late-career Slam bid was riveting, while the men’s game has provided years of great theatre, from Federer, Nadal and now Novak Djokovic. Each has been good for the other, and has drawn people to the sport who wouldn’t otherwise have been interested in it. That seems so obvious that it doesn’t need to be pointed out.

And yet it does. What’s most distressing about Moore’s comments is the way in which he gave the game away later in his session with reporters, where he said, that after Serena and Maria Sharapova retire, that the WTA has “a handful of very attractive prospects that can assume the mantle. You know, (Garbine) Muguruza, Genie Bouchard. They have a lot of very attractive players.”

Wait. Did he just say that women’s tennis will be fine because they have some hotties coming along?

A reporter asked him to clarify what he meant by “attractive.” No, no, no, Moore said. “They are physically attractive and competitively attractive.”

I see. Because that’s how I always think of Roger Federer: competitively attractive.

This is where Moore’s attitude gets exposed for what it is: the men are the real athletes, and the women can do their thing and that’s nice but it helps if they are cute. Many will agree with him.

Sometimes, that argument gets wrapped in the notion that male athletes are just better and so we shouldn’t be surprised when women’s sports get less attention. It’s just that fans only want to watch the best compete.

Except they don’t. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament drew better television ratings in the U.S. on Saturday night than an NBA game between the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs, which might have been the best regular-season matchup in the history of the sport. On Sunday night, viewers flocked to the closing moments of Texas A&M’s thrilling comeback against Northern Iowa, even though it was objectively terrible basketball. Northern Iowa couldn’t even manage an inbounds pass. Four times! It was insane, and it was fun as hell to watch.

Sports don’t have to reach a standard of excellence to be compelling. So much of what we watch is not watched because the games themselves are necessarily good, but for a host of other reasons. Tradition, infrastructure, long-established rivalries, low-risk television programming. The world junior hockey championship is full of players who will never sniff the NHL, and yet people tune in by the millions to see a bunch of Slovakian teens get steamrolled by the home country.

Women’s sports, with pro leagues that for the most part started many decades behind those that were long established for men, are not going to rival those behemoths anytime soon. Which is fine: you can’t snap your fingers and declare the WNBA the equivalent of the NBA, no matter how much you might believe in the importance of gender equality. If a girl dreams of being a pro hockey player, you can’t say she’ll have the same options as a boy today, but at least she will have some options. That wasn’t the case very long ago. It’s something, anyway.

Tennis, though, is the rare sport where athletes of both genders have access to the same big stages. Aside from the Olympics, it’s as close to parity as we are going to get. And yet, here were are: “lady players,” says the tennis guy. For every tournament that has equal prize money, you can find male players who will grouse about it, as Novak Djokovic did after he beat Milos Raonic on Sunday and decided to field questions on Moore’s comments.

In Canada, where we know a thing or two about leading the way on equality, the prize money for the men’s Rogers Cup winner last year was US$685,200. For the women’s winner, it was US$490,200.

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