Land of the dinosaurs: baseline of sexism overshadows tennis in Madrid

<span>Jessica Pegula, Coco Gauff, Victoria Azarenka and Beatriz Haddad Maia on the 2023 doubles final podium – and not a mic in sight.</span><span>Photograph: Oscar J Barroso/AFP7/Shutterstock</span>
Jessica Pegula, Coco Gauff, Victoria Azarenka and Beatriz Haddad Maia on the 2023 doubles final podium – and not a mic in sight.Photograph: Oscar J Barroso/AFP7/Shutterstock

When the female tennis players head back to Spain’s capital for the Madrid Open this week, they may be forgiven for letting out a collective groan. A quick glance at the tournament’s history shows a litany of gaffes, accusations of inequality and a full-blown sexism row just last year. Not exactly a highlight of the calendar.

It may be a new year but those memories are still fresh. One insider says the tournament – which is a WTA 1000 event, offering one of the most prestigious titles of the year – attracts eyerolls from a number of top female players. “When something happens, and it always does, everyone will be like: ‘Classic Madrid,’” said a source close to the action.

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Last year was a case in point. The tournament came under fire for employing model ball girls, whose crop tops were replaced by baggier attire for the closing stages of the event.

A cake controversy got people talking even more. Two top players celebrated their birthdays at the event, Spain’s golden boy and the men’s top seed, Carlos Alcaraz, and Belarus’s Aryna Sabalenka, the women’s world No 2. One was given a massive two-tier cake, which needed two people to carry it out to the main court for a grand ceremony, and the other was presented with a more modest cake on a plate within the stadium. No prizes for guessing who got what.

The former world No 1 Victoria Azarenka tweeted her dismay, suggesting it was a visual representation of how players from the Women’s Tennis Association are treated differently at the event from the men of the Association of Tennis Professionals. Her fellow former grand slam champion Bianca Andreescu concurred. The tournament director, Feliciano López, countered them on X, saying he had no idea what all the fuss was about and responding to Azarenka’s post with a picture of Holger Rune receiving a similarly sized cake to Sabalenka’s. Whatever the motivations, the cakes and the very public spat were not a good look for the tournament.

Later in the week came the cherry on the cake. The tournament organisers denied Azarenka and her fellow finalists in the doubles event – her partner, Beatriz Haddad Maia, and the runners-up Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula – the opportunity to give the customary speeches during the trophy ceremony. The two-time major champion Azarenka – who is also a vocal member of the WTA player council – called it “unacceptable”. “I don’t know what century everyone was living in when they made that decision,” Pegula added.

It took four days of backlash for an apology to be issued by the tournament chief executive, Gerard Tsobanian. He said they would “work internally with the WTA to review our protocols and are committed to improving” and promised: “This will not ever happen again.” The evidence of whether lessons have been learned remains to be seen in the next fortnight.

Elsewhere in tennis there are more glaring examples of structural inequality, at tournaments where prize money disparity is huge or match scheduling devalues the women. But the Madrid Open is still held in particularly low esteem by some insiders. It is about more than just last year and a couple of cakes. These feelings of women being treated like second-class citizens run deep.

It began with the former owner of the Madrid Open, the Romanian businessman and former player Ion Tiriac, who spent years openly admitting he valued the men more than the women. He argued they brought in more money in television rights and sponsorship, so the prize money should reflect that – which by the way, is an opinion shared by others if not vocalised as publicly. He also provided sleazy commentary on WTA players’ legs and demeaning opinions on their ability.

As bleak as the Tiriac era was, some insiders believe that at least his chauvinism was plain to see. He was a dinosaur spouting some outrageous opinions, but everyone knew where they stood with him.

Since Tiriac sold the tournament to IMG in 2022, Tsobanian has been in charge and there have been plenty of examples of inequality in that time. That includes last year, and also in IMG’s first year, when it received more bad press for scheduling the women’s final between the men’s semi-finals, causing delays to the start time and then criticism from the eventual champion, Ons Jabeur.

Though dispiriting, those incidents were unsurprising to many within the sport, as Tsobanian was Tiriac’s right-hand man in Madrid. One source describes him as Tiriac’s “pupil”, adding: “Gerard learned everything from Tiriac, and that should tell you everything you need to know.” They believe a level of inequality has continued to germinate during IMG’s tenure.

Spanish sport has faced a reckoning after the then FA chief, Luis Rubiales, planted an unsolicited kiss on Jenni Hermoso’s lips after their World Cup final victory. It opened the floodgates to stories of machismo within football and wider sport.

While the Madrid Open is one of the most high-profile sporting events hosted in Spain, its troubles should not be misconstrued as linked to any cultural issues because of its location. The tournament is an international operation, run by a huge corporation in IMG, which owns a number of other events, including the Miami Open, and represents a large number of the top players – including Azarenka.

This year offers a fresh opportunity to do right by women’s tennis. Organisers certainly are of the view that there has been a shift in the past 12 months. It is understood they intend to ensure the primetime night sessions have an even split of men’s and women’s matches this year, as was the case last year, and the tournament will continue to offer equal prize money (as do a number of events at this level).

The former world No 5 Daniela Hantuchova has also been introduced as the lead for WTA player relations at this year’s tournament, with the hope that this will foster a further sense of goodwill with the women competing.

“It is of great importance to us that our players, fans and everyone else involved with the Madrid Open have a positive experience,” Robbie Henchman, IMG’s president of global partnerships said. “Over the past year, we worked with the WTA, ATP and our stakeholders to review our protocols and we have implemented inclusion training for key Madrid Open team members.”

This will all help on a practical front, but reputational damage remains trickier to erase.