Eugenie Bouchard is the darling of tennis right now. For those following the game, her rise has been steady and consistent, making the big step up in the last 12 months after being named the WTA Breakthrough Player of the Year in 2013.
In 2014’s four majors, the Canadian reached the fourth round at Flushing Meadows, the last four on two separate occasions and the final at Wimbledon. Her run at SW19 captured the imagination of the British public, and whilst she eventually fell to Petra Kvitova, hers is a name that fans will be looking out for in July in the UK.
And yet, in the year 2015, one of the finest female sports stars on the planet is required to twirl for the ‘pleasure’ of the watching public. At the Australian Open last week, following a comprehensive 6-0, 6-3 victory over Kiki Bertens, commentator Ian Cohen inexplicably asked the number seven seed to do a ‘twirl’ during an on-court post-match interview.
Ever the polite woman she appears to be, Bouchard obliged in rather embarrassing fashion, putting her hands to her face after the incident as if to say ‘why did I just do that’. On the spot in-front of thousands in attendance and now millions on the internet, she had little choice in the matter.
Bouchard is not alone in ‘twirl-gate’; world number one Serena Williams was subjected to the same question following victory over Vera Zvonereva. Yes, that is correct, the world’s best tennis player in the immediate aftermath of victory was asked to twirl in her Nike outfit rather than discuss what just happened in a match.
Williams didn’t want to get drawn on the suggestion of sexism in her following press interviews, but her comments are telling.
"I wouldn’t ask Rafa or Roger to twirl. Whether it’s sexist or not, I don’t know. I can’t answer that. I didn’t really want to twirl because I was just like, you know, I don’t need all the extra attention. But, yeah, it was fine.”
But it isn’t really fine. This was an opportunity for Williams to tell the world that this is anything but ‘fine’. The greatest female tennis player, possibly of all-time, could have questioned why an interviewer thought it was appropriate to discuss dress-sense over play. Not in the immediate aftermath, but in the later and more controlled environment of a press conference.
It’s perhaps a mark of Serena Williams’ competitive nature that she doesn’t want to get drawn into the conversation. The ‘extra attention’ would detract from an attempt to lift Grand Slam singles title number 19. Had she said something, perhaps Bouchard would have been saved the ignominy of pirouetting for the masses.
Sexism and the women’s game is nothing new, of course. Let’s not forget that Anna Kournikova made a living out of looking good rather than winning tennis matches. She wasn’t a bad player, but she certainly wasn’t a great one, reaching a single Grand Slam semi-final back in 1997. According to the official WTA website, she earned $3,584,662 in prize money during her playing career. In endorsements, your guess is as good as mine.
Kournikova was great for women’s tennis is the sense that she paved the way for the players to make millions off the court. Some had done it before her, but not to the same extent. However, the negative was that her body became more important than her ability as an athlete.
That’s a trap Maria Sharapova has managed to avoid since winning Wimbledon for the first time over a decade ago in 2004. She’s since got her hands on all four major trophies - an achievement that makes her more comparable with some of the game’s greats rather than Kournikova.
Sex sells, as the saying goes. Sharapova’s looks have helped her grace the cover of magazines like Esquire and Teen Vogue, whilst lucrative endorsement and sponsorship deals have helped make her a fortune.
But all this comes as a result of success and ability on court. When Sharapova goes to work, she plays to win. It’s all business, and it’s all about the W. The looks, the deals, the money - does it matter when she’s on court playing tennis? The answer is no.
Bouchard's market value
The same is true of Williams. That’s how she’s become the best player in the world. And, the same is also true of Bouchard. Her rise through the rankings hasn’t come about because of her looks - it’s because she’s spent hours dedicating herself on the practice court.
To subsequently be quizzed on clothing is, in the reality of the situation, actually quite bizarre. You’ve just been at the office all day and done a good job - can you please spin around and talk to me about your suit. It’s inconsequential.
We regularly hold up sportsmen and women as something different to what they actually are. They are athletes who do their job in-front of a watching audience that can reach millions.
And, you can guarantee that the world will be watching when Bouchard and Sharapova go head-to-head in Melbourne tomorrow. Two of the most marketable athletes in the world, competing for a place in a Grand Slam semi-final. It doesn't get much bigger than that.
In many ways, it's a match-up that draws in a wider audience than just your casual tennis fan. People know the name Sharapova, even if they don't really like tennis. The same thing is starting to happen with Bouchard. Pair them together, and interest peaks. That can only be good for the game.
If their match-up lives up to the billing, then it's an opportunity for two of the elite players in the women's game to show what all the fuss is about. Why are these people being asked to twirl when they can produce tennis to such a high standard?
The scenario is simple; one of these protagonists comes out on top in their battle on Rod Laver, applauds their rival off court and then stands up to give an interview discussing the victory.
First question, please?