US Open 2018: Alize Cornet's sexism row in Grand Slam event indicates that gender inequality still persists in sport

Once again, the conversation has been reduced to women and their dresses. What they can, cannot, should or should not be wearing.

The run-up to the US Open was dominated by the Serena Williams catsuit controversy. Close on the heels comes a code violation for Alize Cornet because she changed her top on court. In both cases, it was the male perspective of what was not ‘okay’ that intervened.

In May, Williams made a comeback to Grand Slam tennis, at the French Open, wearing a black catsuit with a red waistband. It was an instant hit, in that it got people talking. While the outfit joined the list of Williams’ memorable fashion pieces, it also made practical sense. The 36-year-old American had given birth to daughter Alexis in September by a C-section. She also had to undergo multiple surgeries to remove blood clots.

File image of Alize Cornet. Reuters

File image of Alize Cornet. Reuters

“I’ve had a lot of problems with my blood clots,” Williams had explained. “God, I don’t know how many I’ve had in the past 12 months. I’ve been wearing pants in general a lot when I play, so I can keep the blood circulation going.”

But French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli deemed the outfit disrespectful.

“I think we sometimes went too far,” he said. “The combination of Serena this year, for example, it will no longer be accepted. You have to respect the game and the place.”

On Tuesday, chair umpire Christian Rask handed Cornet a code violation for changing her top on court.

During the first-round match between Cornet and Sweden's Johanna Larsson, the players were given a 10-minute break as the extreme heat policy came into play. Once the players stepped back on court, Cornet realized she had worn her top backwards and quickly set about putting it straight. Going back to the locker room, would have meant another bathroom break for her. Even though she was wearing a full coverage sports bra, which is routinely used in training, the umpire was not ready to give any leeway. “It’s not okay,” he was heard telling Cornet before he handed her a code violation and warning.

The USTA, since have said in a statement that, “All players can change their shirts when sitting in the player chair. This is not considered a code violation. We have clarified the policy to ensure this will not happen moving forward. Fortunately, she was only assessed a warning with no further penalty or fine. Female players, if they choose, may also change their shirts in a more private location close to the court, when available. They will not be assessed a bathroom break in this circumstance.”

Even though the US Open have apologized and WTA, women’s tennis governing body, clarified its rules on it, saying the violation was “unfair and it was not based on a WTA rule, as the WTA has no rule against a change of attire on court”, the incident once again exposed how rules differ for men and women.

“What Bernard Giudicelli said about Serena's cat suit was 10,000 times worse than what happened to me on the court yesterday, because he's the president of French Federation and because he doesn't have to do that,” Cornet later said. “But, yes, for sure the women are treated a little bit differently. I think we are very lucky as WTA players because we have a lot of equity in this sport.”

Judy Murray, mother of two Grand Slam champions Andy and Jamie, slammed the apparent discrimination. “Alize Cornet came back to court after 10 minute heat break. Had her fresh shirt on back to front. Changed at back of court. Got a code violation. Unsportsmanlike conduct..... ???? But the men can change shirts on court,” she tweeted.

Given the oppressive heat and humidity in New York this year, the male players have often changed shirts on court. Some are even seen throwing their shirts into the stands and parading topless after victory. All within the bounds of decency, it seems.

“If I would say my true feelings, it would be bleeped out, because I think it was ridiculous,” Victoria Azarenka said on Wednesday. “It was nothing wrong. Nothing wrong. It wasn't anything disrespectful. She literally changed her shirt because it was backwards. So I couldn't believe this was a conversation. I'm glad they apologized, and I hope this never happens again.”

“But I don't think it's just a problem on the tour. I think it's a problem in the world, unfortunately,” Azarenka added. “There is always a double standard for men and women. But we need to push those barriers. And as players, as representatives of the WTA Tour, I believe we're going to do the best we can to make sure that we are the most progressive sport.”

Tennis hasn’t exactly given an impression of being a progressive sport this summer. Even at Wimbledon, with the traditional no tie-break in fifth set rule prevailing, the second men’s semi-finals was disrupted. And even then, the organisers chose to give the male semi-finalists (Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal) a definite start time, pushing them to the top of the Saturday schedule while making ladies finalists Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber wait in the wings indefinitely.

It is ironic that the third sexism controversy, in three major events now, happened at the Billie Jean King Tennis Centre: the tennis complex named after the foremost champion of women’s rights in the world. As well as the game has done well in the bigger gestures of equality, like naming the biggest Grand Slam complex after Billie Jean King and offering equal prize money to women (after much resistance and revolt), it’s the ‘smaller’ gestures of inequality that are shackling it.


Updated Date: Aug 30, 2018 14:15 PM

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