Tennis is one of the few sports that can boast of multiple openly non-straight tennis players, some of whom enjoyed incredible success during their playing years. The success of players such as Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Amélie Mauresmo lifted them to the status of household names, and all three of these women came out as gay during their playing career. King and Navratilova were both forcibly outed in 1981, King in May of that year as a result of a lawsuit for division of assets filed by her ex-partner, and Navratilova in July, when an article she had pre-written for the New York Daily News was published without her consent. This brought both women into the spotlight as two of the very first high profile, openly non-straight female sports stars, and women’s tennis stood as a beacon of openness in sport. In 1999, after 18 years of advancement of for LGBTQ+ rights worldwide, future WTA number one Amélie Mauresmo voluntarily came out at the age of just 19, after victory over top seed Davenport saw her through to her first Grand Slam final.
Unfortunately, this openness in the WTA never spilled over onto the men’s tour. While there are many openly non-straight players in women’s tennis, there has not been a single out male tennis player since WWII. Indeed, while the history of openly non-straight women in the sport seems highly impressive, this may only be the case in comparison to other sports. Within a sport such as tennis, at least the top 50 ranked players on both tours at any moment are of journalistic relevance. This means that while there have been thousands of significant players since King’s outing in 1981, of which fewer than 20 have been openly non-straight.
So what keeps keep players in the closet in the modern day, in a sport with so many high profile non-straight ex-players? Factors such as sponsor pressure and media attention are, of course, common across multiple sports, but this is further complicated by the international nature of tennis. Issues of sponsor pressure are magnified, as sponsors with worldwide brands will wish to appeal to a worldwide market. While there are homophobes in all countries, sponsors looking to have influence in countries where same-sex relationships and sexual acts are illegal will be increasingly less willing to take on sponsorship of openly non-straight players.
Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova suffered visibly from this in the 1980’s, losing the majority of the few sponsors that had been attracted to women’s tennis at the time. By contrast, Amélie Mauresmo secured Nike sponsorship at an extremely young age, and continues to wear Nike clothing to this day, 10 years after her retirement. While this certainly seems like a step forward, top 30 ranked Casey Dellacqua, who is openly in a same-sex relationship, is surprisingly lacking in a top tennis clothing sponsor. Dellacqua is the most high profile openly non-straight player currently on the tour, and was nominated for the WTA 2014 ‘Most Improved Player of the Year’ award, yet has never managed to secure a common sponsor such as Nike or Adidas, instead buying her own clothes long into her career, even returning to this after her first sponsorship by the Australian Target brand ended. Dellacqua does, however, have a premium racket sponsor, in fact sharing Mauresmo’s old sponsor, Head.
With tournaments held around the world, it is perhaps unsurprising that some are held in countries where homosexuality is illegal. This does not diminish the dilemma created for any non-straight players, particularly those who may wish to travel with their family. While none of the top 4 Grand Slam events in tennis are held in countries where same-sex relationships and sexual acts are illegal, both the male and female tours host high level events in Doha and Dubai, in countries which both have and enforce such laws. The United Arab Emirates has even proved unafraid to enforce such laws on tourists as recently as 2012, sentencing two Indian men to six months imprisonment, and a British man for the three years. In addition to this, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are two of the Gulf Cooperation countries who in 2013 announced their intent to ‘test’ those entering the country for homosexuality, and to refuse entry based on such grounds. Little has been heard of this matter since 2013, however the presence of tennis in such countries further implies an acceptance of these politics by the International Tennis Federation and other leadership bodies in professional tennis.
This tolerant nature is further indicated by the lack of reaction to homophobia practiced by players, even in instances where comments have been targeted at other players. Mauresmo has received multiple instances of this, with Martina Hingis reportedly branding her ‘half a man’ immediately after her coming out in 1999, and Janko Tipsarević calling her a ‘pervert’ in 2007. Neither the ATP nor the WTA commented on either instance, both of which essentially amount to bullying between players. Tipsarević went on to say that he ‘[tries] not to have any contact with’ known homosexual male players, but it is as yet unclear who he was referring to.
In addition to these targeted comments, the ATP have failed to respond to the repetitive usage of homophobic slurs by high profile former number one players such as Lleyton Hewitt and Goran Ivanišević. In 2001, Ivanišević won Wimbledon as a wildcard entry, an achievement that rightly gathered him a great deal of press attention. In his first press conference as Wimbledon champion, he repeatedly used a homophobic slur to refer to one of the line officials, a slur he had used only two weeks before at another tournament. In this instance, Ivanišević was clearly violating explicit ATP rules surrounding abuse of an official, of which violation may result in fines of up to $25,000 or even suspension from tour events, yet no comment was made by either the ATP or the AELTC/LTA, who are more directly responsible for Wimbledon itself.
There are signs of recent improvement, however, with the ATP labelling the views of Alexandr Dolgopolov ‘regrettable’, after he asserted on twitter that gay and transgender people are ‘not normal’. While there was no direct punishment or official reprimand, this is a clear step forward from unchecked slur usage at major tournaments. In the same week, the WTA acted quickly to fine and suspend a tournament official in response to sexist and racist remarks targeted at the Williams sisters. These two stories, can certainly be hoped to represent an improvement in the response of tennis authorities to discriminatory remarks by players and officials alike.
Unfortunately, these positive stories were followed by Tennis Australia renewing their association with Margaret Court. Margaret Court is undoubtedly one of the greatest tennis players of all time, having won a record 24 Grand Slam titles during her career. She is also virulently homophobic, actively campaigning against equal rights for same-sex relationships in her native Australia. She has claimed that homosexuality is a choice, and further that young players on the tennis tour have been ‘snared’ into this ‘lifestyle’ by older, openly homosexual players. Despite this, the Margaret Court Arena at the Australian Open, one of the four biggest events on the tennis calendar, was elevated in status this year.
Margaret Court Arena used to be the third show court for the Australian Open, but with the addition of a retractable roof – which Court was invited to open during the tournament – it has now become the second court of the tournament. There have been protests at the Margaret Court Arena in the past, subtly supported by both gay and straight players, calling for high visibility of rainbow flags within the Arena. When questioned on this, Tennis Australia simply stated that they did not share Court’s views. Despite this, the choice to promote the importance of the Margaret Court Arena this year, and further to provide Margaret Court herself with a platform to speak during the tournament, shows a profound lack of understanding and respect for the damage her words have the potential to cause.
This culture of tolerance for homophobia may explain why closeted players choose to remain so, and additionally may have an impact on the appeal of the sport to young LGBTQ+ players and fans, especially male players lacking in an openly non-straight player to look up to. Despite the sport’s history of incredibly successful, openly non-straight players, tennis is at risk of falling behind the times. With sports such as ice hockey, soccer and rugby creating high profile anti-homophobia campaigns, tennis certainly has some catching up to do.