The Madrid Open ‘ball girls’ change outfits, but a new row over sexism erupts after the players were silenced
The Madrid Open is at the center of a new sexism row just days after the WTA Tour event was criticized for using models as “ball girls” in “feminizing” outfits. Players involved in Sunday’s women’s doubles final – including Coco Gauff and former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka – have been denied the opportunity to address the crowd.
The tournament has not explained its reasons for the players’ silence, but the censorship is believed to be linked to Iga Swiatek’s runners-up speech on Saturday, in which the current world No. 1 complained about the late-night schedule of their semi-finals.
That was just the latest flare-up of an event that had repeatedly been criticized for its unequal treatment of men and women – including a complaint about the “feminizing” outfits of the ball girls from Pilar Calvino, spokeswoman for the Spanish Association for Women in Professional Sport.
The silence from doubles players on Sunday drew an understated message from Gauff – who tweeted: “Didn’t get a chance to speak today after the final” – and a more explicit one from Azarenka, who said: “Hard to explain to Leo [her six-year-old son] that mum can’t greet him at the award ceremony”.
Ons Jabeur, world number seven, described the events as “sad and unacceptable”:
Curiously, Azarenka already had a social media argument with tournament director Feliciano López over birthday cakes.
Last Friday happened to be the birthdays of the two eventual singles champions – Carlos Alcaraz, 20, and Aryna Sabalenka, 25. As the two players received cake from the tournament, Azarenka – the most high-profile member of the Women’s Tennis Association players’ council – pointed out that the cake from Alcaraz was at least four times larger and considerably grander. It was also presented to him at the Campo Manolo Santana – the main stadium of the Caja Magica complex in Madrid – while Sabalenka received hers backstage.
In response to Azarenka’s tweet pointing out the discrepancy, López replied defensively: “I’m surprised by this reaction after this gesture! 1. Carlos had just won his match to reach the final. 2. He played on Center Court. 3. The tournament will be played in Spain even though it is an international event.”
López, the former French Open doubles champion, was later captured staring at Swiatek with daggers as she told fans during Saturday’s presentation that “it’s not fun playing at 1am” (a reference to the late end of her semi-final win over Veronika Kudermetova). .
While the lack of speeches at Sunday’s women’s doubles presentation remains officially unexplained, it seems likely the Madrid Open were trying to discourage Azarenka – who is reliably outspoken – from making further criticism of the organizers.
If so, the move may have backfired by drawing even more attention to the controversy surrounding the event.
Returning to the “ball girls”, those selected for the finals wore less revealing outfits after Calvino complained that they were expected to wear crop tops and pleated skirts while the ball boys performed in shorts. “It’s a way of feminizing girls over boys who don’t dress like that,” Calvino told online newspaper Público. “Ultimately, it’s a form of sexist violence that’s so pervasive that people don’t even realize it.”
It’s not the first time the ball girls have attracted attention in Madrid. In 2004, the tournament hired models for the job, leading Andre Agassi to admit “concentrating on the ball was difficult, to say the least”.
The model-only policy was changed after Soledad Murillo, the Secretary of State for Equality, indicated that it “fosters clear discrimination against women who appear as simple objects of decoration and entertainment”.
The Mutua Madrid Open is one of four mandatory 1000 tournaments, along with Indian Wells, Miami and Beijing, that make up the highest category of the WTA Tour. It pays out equal prize money to men and women, but only because the WTA contributes a hefty sum to equalize the fees. Super agency IMG completed the purchase of the event last year for a nine-figure sum.
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