WTA's Silence Disappointing After Russian Tennis Head Slurs the Williams Sisters

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett@@merlisaFeatured ColumnistOctober 17, 2014

Shamil Tarpischev stands with members of the 2013 Russian Fed Cup team
Shamil Tarpischev stands with members of the 2013 Russian Fed Cup teamMisha Japaridze/Associated Press

Serena and Venus Williams often pay homage to founders of the WTA. They frequently thank Billie Jean King for ushering in endless opportunities for women in tennis. Likewise, Billie Jean King credits the Williams sisters for their role in helping the WTA gain equal pay for women in major tournaments.

So why the silence from the WTA when the head of the Russian Tennis Federation hurls a misogynistic slur at the Williams sisters?

Shamil Tarpischev, head of the RTF, appeared on the Evening Urgant, a late-night talk show broadcast nationally in Russia. Sitting next to retired WTA player Elena Dementieva, Tarpischev joked with the host about how difficult it is to defeat the Williams sisters.

However, instead of acknowledging the Williams sisters' talents and skills, Tarpischev decided to degrade them. "The Williams brothers," he called them. 

The put-down didn't stop there. Ivan Urgant, the host of the show, instigated more thoughtless conversation. He continued (h/t TennisInfoBlog.com):

Look at our athletes, elegant and beautiful. I have tremendous respect for them [Williams sisters], but once one of the sisters passed next to me, and I found myself in her shadow for about forty seconds. They are so physically powerful. Weren't you afraid to play against them?

Tarpischev and Dementieva smiled and listened to this foolishness. They ignored the fact that Russia's own Maria Sharapova is the tallest woman in the Top 100 and hits with as much power as anybody on tour.

The "Williams brothers" remark and the tone Urgant used seemed to suggest that Serena and Venus were otherworldly, some strange creatures to be feared. 

A video of the interview made its way to Youtube last week. Soon, a translation of the interview was all over Twitter.

When I first came across it, my reaction was shock and caution. As a journalist living in the age of social media, I understand how things reported online can be inaccurate, misinterpreted or just plain made up.

I figured, surely a veteran international tennis official, someone who serves on Olympic committees, would know better than to go on a nationally televised show and laugh his way through disparaging remarks about two of the greatest players in tennis history. Something must have gotten lost in translation.

Nope. He said it. 

I watched the clip several times. The first thing I noticed was the ease in which the men uttered the nasty comments. Secondly, I took note of Dementieva.

Perhaps caught off guard, Dementieva refrained from joining in the conversation. However, she never expressed disgust or disapproval.

That's unfortunate because Dementieva is a contemporary of Venus and Serena. The Williams sisters are one of the reasons that Grand-Slamless Dementieva earned more than $14 million in prize money. That's nearly the same amount earned by nine-time Slams winner Monica Seles.

Yet Dementieva sat there, in the middle of two men who reduced her profession to a beauty contest. Her silence gave the men permission to yuck it up at the expense of women's tennis and the Williams sisters. 

What they were essentially saying is that being perceived as "better looking" trumps on-court achievement. How could Dementieva, an athlete, let that slide?

She's like the clueless businesswoman who grins while male coworkers denigrate female colleagues based on their looks. 

Sure, maybe the woman hates it. She might even be so disgusted that she goes home and complains to her friends about it. But if she wants those men to stop, the correct thing to do is to call them on it. Let them know that even if their remarks are not aimed at her, they are offensive. 

Aug 28, 2014; New York, NY, USA;  Venus Williams (USA) and Serena Williams (USA)  before playing Timea Babos (HUN) and Kristina Mladenovic (FRA) on the Grandstand Court on day four of the 2014 U.S. Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National
USA TODAY Sports

Besides demeaning the Williams sisters, the men also diminished the Russian tennis players.

Can you imagine Tarpischev getting into a conversation about who was better looking, Marat Safin or Andy Roddick?  

It's one thing for idiotic fans and trolls to flood comments sections and the Twitterverse with nasty slurs. Heck, the talk-show host was out of line but he's trying to get a laugh. Tarpischev is a professional tennis official.  

Where's the outrage from the WTA and the USTA? The Kremlin Cup is going on, right now. Tarpischev is walking around, all smiles without offering a hint of remorse. Why would he? He had a WTA player sitting next to him when he made his ugly comments. He's yet to see any public statements from the WTA. 

Update: On Friday afternoon, the WTA announced it is suspending Tarpischev for one year, and fining him $25,000 for his comments. WTA Chairman and CEO Stacy Allaster said in a statement, which was obtained by Bleacher Report: 

The statements made by Shamil Tarpischev on Russian television with respect to two of the greatest athletes in the history of women’s tennis are insulting, demeaning and have absolutely no place in our sport.  Serena Williams and Venus Williams are champions on and off the court – outstanding human beings, incredible sportswomen and amazing role models who have done so much to inspire women and girls around the world to achieve their dreams.

As a result of his comments, I have ordered Mr. Tarpischev to be fined $25,000, the maximum allowed under WTA rules.  In addition, he will be suspended from any involvement with the WTA for one year and we are seeking his removal from his position as Chairman of the Board of the Kremlin Cup for one year.  His re-instatement will be dependent on good behaviour.  Mr. Tarpischev’s private letter of acknowledgement is a start.  However, Mr. Tarpischev owes Venus and Serena Williams a personal apology, as well as other players and tennis fans everywhere, a public apology.

Just last year the BBC removed British television personality John Inverdale from its radio coverage of Wimbledon after he made sexist comments about Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli. 

Bartoli had just won Wimbledon when Inverdale asked, on air, “Do you think Bartoli's dad told her when she was little ‘You're never going to be a looker. You'll never be a [Maria] Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight.'?”

The backlash was swift. Tennis fans and players demanded an apology. 

Similarly, tennis fans were the first to demand an apology from Tarpischev. Then, a few former tennis pros, including Martina Navratilova, tweeted their displeasure with the remarks. Navratilova suggested ousting Tarpischev. Katrina Adams, a former WTA player and co-host of the new CBSSports show We Need to Talk, called the comments despicable. 

Those are individuals. It's time for the WTA, the primary representative organization for women's tennis, to issue a statement.

The same organization that boasts "Strong is Beautiful" must back up its message that being physically powerful doesn't negate your femininity. That what it means to be a woman is not something a man can decide for you.

Perhaps Tarpischev is just salty because the most prominent Russian player is the Americanized Sharapova, who is on a 15-match losing streak against Serena. Or maybe he's still smarting from that humiliating gold medal match at the 2012 Olympics where Serena dismantled Sharapova, 6-0, 6-1. 

Regardless of why Tarpischev said it, he needs to apologize. The WTA, USTA and ITF need to apologize for not immediately demanding that he apologize. 

Remaining silent is tantamount to an endorsement. If the WTA is going to endorse mess like this, then they might as well replace chair umpires with a panel of judges and start issuing trophies based on who the men folk deem prettiest.  

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