Game, sex, match: the gender politics of Wimbledon

Andy Murray ponders the heteronormativity of Centre Court. Not enough megapixels

On a weekend like this, tennis stars like Andy Murray are the nation’s biggest stars. In many ways, sportspeople are no different from any other celebrities - be they reality TV stars, rock stars or film stars. But when it comes to gender, sporting heroes represent quite specific sexual politics. Because sport is so concerned with people’s bodies, our attention is drawn more to the differences between men and women.

Sport is distinctly divided by a binary logic of sex: you are either male or female and the vast majority of events are segregated. Different values are accorded to men’s competitions and those of women (more usually, especially at Wimbledon, called ladies).

Women play to the best of three sets whereas men play five. The rationale for the different rules which have been applied to the governance of sport usually draw upon notions of women’s physical weakness or the need to protect women’s vulnerability.

These factors and the changes that have been made in light of diversity policies point to the contradictions of sexual politics. Since 2007, women and men have received the same prize money at Wimbledon so it is unsurprising that commentators like Pat Cash, not a man recognised for his feminist views, has called for equivalence in the rules of the game too: women should play to five sets too.

In 2013 the men’s and the women’s singles champion will each receive £1.6 million which suggests that Cash is quite right. Equal prize money reflects equal entertainment value and women’s tennis is just as entertaining as men’s. Cash’s comment may not however, be supported by this assertion of equality and be based more on the idea that women should have to work as hard as men for their prize money and that playing to the best of five sets might be punitive and too much for women. Elite sport is about sporting success and record setting but it is also very definitely about entertainment and equal prize money reflects this equality.

Equality and difference include ambiguity but often in sport there is no distinction made between sex - the anatomical properties of a person’s body - and gender - its social and cultural forms. The two are inseparable. Cultural values about femininity and heterosexuality are used to justify separate practices which are presented as biological and fixed.

Sport does not simply reflect the values of the wider social world, it makes those values. Viewers on television see the camera zoom onto the sexual partner of the player on court, particularly in the case of Andy Murray’s girlfriend who occupies celebrity status by virtue of being his partner enacting a series of poses as a committed spectator. This phenomenon is more common with male players, because their attractive girlfriends add to the display of celebrity.

Grunting has been seen as a problem in the women’s game particularly. Juan del Potro’s marathon match against finalist Novak Djockovic had a constant soundtrack of grunts of exertion from both players, but this passed without comment. Spectators are more conscious of the sound when it is comes from a woman, who should be conforming to more ladylike comportment, especially in a sport in which she is competing as a “lady”.

The irritation felt by the spectator who is witnessing these grunts is troubling. Elite, competitive sport requires enormous physical exertion and some less attractive body practices. Footballers spit, bowlers in cricket adjust their trousers quite flamboyantly, and no one complains.

Tennis is entertaining in the way that many sports are; it is the celebration of embodied achievement and the skill and competence which talent and rigorous training can produce. It does however, raise questions about what we are watching and why, and about how inequality and difference are also played out on court.

A critical analysis of sport offers some insight into ordinary life. The making of sports stars creates standards for gender relations in the wider world as well as reflecting them. In the case of women’s tennis, these standards leave a lot to be desired in the promotion of sex equality.