In spring, according to Alfred Tennyson, “a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love”. Just a few weeks later, the thoughts of a young man and sometimes an old goat – of a literary lion and often a tabloid sub-editor – will major on Wimbledon and its women.
Or at least they used to. Every July these chaps would throw themselves helplessly into a fortnight-long fling with their favourite girl, though it would be slightly less if she got herself knocked out in the third round. Then Clive James, the Australian wit, would sit down and compose his epic poem, Bring Me the Sweat of Gabriela Sabatini, and the headline-writers on the small, funny papers would rush to compete for the most pun-tastic effort in 120-point type, usually accompanied by some frilly-knickered shot of the “tennis babe” in question.
The writer Martin Amis told me how his father Kingsley loved Ann Jones almost completely. For when the 1969 Wimbers champion was playing on TV he’d have to rush over to the screen and plant a fat thumb over her face. This is funny, only if you can visualise Amis Sr engaging in rapid forwards movement – a man, according to Amis Jr, who was exactly the same height standing up as sitting down, and you can guess there would be a good bit of wobbling involved. Then he must have jabbed the digit all across the glass, his brow popping sweat globules in frustration at the darned woman being so athletic. Otherwise, of course, all of this was appallingly sexist.
None of it would happen now. And a good thing, too. Amis Sr is dead and James is 78, a product of a brash land, who was in his pomp – and there’s no bigger fan of his TV reviews than me – when Benny Hill was in his and Miss World was still a prime-time fixture – a different time in the sex wars, for sure. A younger male cultural commentator would not view a female tennis player as a lust object, no matter how artful his prose might be. And, though I don’t study these things intently (honest), it seems a while since there’s been a “Top of the Bots” poll masquerading as a tennis report in the red-tops.
The women of the courts have fought for, and got, respect. They’ve fought for, and got, parity in pay. Women’s tennis can be just as exciting as the men’s game – and if there are too many cold, unsmiling, personality-free, big-serving monsters in the men’s game at any given time, then it is actually more exciting. It has fantastic champions like Serena Williams, with whom you wouldn’t dare mess – and guys like Andy Murray talking up the women’s game whenever he feels its participants are being compromised or patronised. But there are still, it seems, battles to be won.
Last week at the US Open France’s Alize Cornet was handed a code violation when, realising her top was back to front, she walked to the rear of the court during a break in her match and switched it the right way round. By removing the garment, and briefly flashing her sports bra, she was deemed guilty of unsportsmanlike conduct.
The “infringement” came right after Williams’ all-black superhero catsuit from this year’s French Open had been deemed no longer de rigueur by that tournament. Williams, pictured inset, had explained that the attire helped her circulation after the difficult birth of her daughter – indeed the blood clots she suffered had almost killed her. If I can be so bold, the comic strip-inspired onesie looked sensational. It was a statement. It said: I’m back in the game. Williams, returning to Grand Slams as a player who’s done more than anyone to elevate women’s tennis, was perfectly entitled to make it. And Roland Garros, more relaxed about clothing than straight-laced, whites-only Wimbledon, seemed like the ideal place.
This ruling, and the one affecting Cornet, must be men judging women. I’d be hugely surprised if a woman was involved in either. What’s the message in all of this? That women should behave and dress more like, well, women? A male idea of women? More feminine? Who pronounces on that nowadays? In the era of #MeToo it would be a brave man/complete berk who tries.
The French decision was bonkers and was instantly condemned as “everyday sexism”. The verdict from Flushing Meadows, although subsequently regretted by tournament officials who issued an apology, spoke of what Billie Jean King called the “policing of women’s bodies”. Cornet’s disrobing lasted all of ten seconds. Male players are always doffing their tops. They’ll sit in their chairs naked from the waist up contemplating life and the flatness of their cross-court backhand drives while the crowd is supposed to contemplate their chest-hair. There will be wolf whistles. Rafa Nadal has yet to make a complaint about feeling objectified. But Cornet wasn’t putting on a show.
Back in Paris, the French Tennis Federation president, Bernard Giudicelli, outlined why Williams’ catsuit can no longer be allowed: “I think sometimes we went too far. You have to respect the game and the place.” Was Williams really being disrespectful? She could shout about the lack of respect she’s been accorded throughout her career for not looking like, say, Anna Kournikova. She’s too muscular, too butch. Look at her body, her hair. What on earth is she wearing now? And isn’t the federation’s ban disrespecting the traditions of a tournament which has always gone its own way, just like the country in general? Down the years the French Open has been a competition where players have been able to express themselves through fashion. It hasn’t been hidebound by Wimbledon’s fierce rules on attire and has seemed to take great delight in being different. But not, it seems, any more. First Paris gets Disneyland, then Starbucks – and then the grand tennis show becomes a little less French.
In other sports recently, including badminton, boxing and golf, women have been “advised” what to wear and in some cases the clear intention has been to ensure they’re more feminine and more marketable. Trust tennis to join them in getting its knickers in a twist.