Novak Djokovic may have won the 2016 BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, but he failed miserably in his response to controversial remarks made by tournament CEO Raymond Moore.
Prior to the start of the finals, the showcase of what many consider the best-run tournament in tennis, Moore spoke at a routine media breakfast. When asked about the state of women's tennis, Moore told journalists (as reported by the Associated Press' Beth Harris):
In my next life when I come back I want to be someone in the WTA because they ride on the coattails of the men. They don't make any decisions and they are lucky. They are very, very lucky...If I was a lady player, I'd go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport.
It didn't take long for those comments to show up on social media.
While tennis fans and journalists took Moore to task for his indefensible comments, the players played on. Victoria Azarenka thwarted a fierce comeback attempt by Williams. Later, Djokovic overpowered an overwhelmed Milos Raonic.
Unfortunately, Moore's words left a storm cloud over the desert. Even after Moore apologized, people continue to hammer him on social media.
Then, with a chance to represent the ATP World Tour and all female-respecting male tennis lovers, Djokovic whiffed.
Asked to respond to Moore's sexist comments, Djokovic rambled on about equal prize money and hormones.
He told reporters (via The Guardian):
Equal prize money was the main subject of the tennis world in the last seven, eight years. I have been through that process as well, so I understand how much power and energy WTA and all the advocates for equal prize money have invested in order to reach that. I applaud them for that. I honestly do. They fought for what they deserve, and they got it. On the other hand, I think that our men's tennis world, ATP world, should fight for more, because the stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men's tennis matches.
Of course English is not Djokovic's first language. Perhaps there was something lost in translation.
But why go there? Why muddy disparaging remarks with a discussion on equal prize money and hormones? Why minimize Moore's tone and context by labelling his detractors as "politically correct?"
An offensive mishit, Djokovic's response did more to affirm Moore's sentiments than condemn them.
Djokovic is the No. 1 player on the ATP tour. Unfortunately, his ideas about the value of women's tennis, while not as offensive as Moore's, are still dismissive.
Sadly, he echoes the thoughts expressed by others in leadership positions with the ATP.
On Twitter, Sergiy Stakhosky, the resident sexist on the tour, joked Moore might be campaigning for ATP Player Council President. A member of the ATP's player council, Stakhovsky is no stranger to controversial comments about the WTA. He wears his disrespect for women's tennis with pride.
Another member of the council, Gilles Simon, has publicly stated men should make more money than the women.
Sexist rhetoric from ATP players and a 69-year-old man—even one with a lofty title like Moore's—is precisely why Djokovic needed to step up.
During the interview, Djokovic acknowledged he had heard about the comments. So he had time to give this some thought. Instead of denouncing Moore's comments outright, he chose to make a matter of disrespect about a marketing and fiduciary debate.
Like Moore, Djokovic seemed to dismiss the contributions of female players. He suggested distribution of prize money be based on ticket sells, television ratings and fandom.
Eurosport writer Carrie Dunn hit back, writing, "So according to Djokovic, women fought for what they deserve—equal pay—but actually they don't really deserve it because men deserve more. Just intrinsically."
Dunn also took offense to what she called Djokovic's understanding of the "female body and endocrinal system."
After his statements on equal prize money, Djokovic attempted to show "respect" for women. Instead he went there, to the hormonal differences, a topic best avoided by all non-medical male personnel.
Djokovic told reporters (via FoxSports):
I have tremendous respect for what women in global sport are doing and achieving. It's knowing what they have to go through with their bodies, and their bodies are much different than men's bodies. They have to go through a lot of different things that we don't have to go through. You know, the hormones and different stuff, we don't need to go into details. Ladies know what I'm talking about.
What's so odd about Djokovic's comments is he said them on a day and at an event in which the women, Williams and Azarenka, put on a far better show than the men.
In her press conference, Serena Williams told reporters (via CNN.com) "I don't think any woman should be down on their knees thanking anybody like that...I think Venus, myself, a number of players—if I could tell you every day how many people say they don't watch tennis unless they're watching myself or my sister—I couldn't even bring up that number."
It will be interesting to see the television ratings for the women's match compared to the men's.
It's also notable Djokovic has earned $20 million more in prize money than Serena Williams. It could be argued he's meant half as much to tennis as she is. Williams routinely draws higher television ratings. She has nearly a million more Twitter followers than Djokovic and has won twice as many Grand Slam titles.
During Williams' run at a calendar-year Slam, tickets for the 2015 U.S. Open women's final sold out before the men's.
The 2013 U.S. Open women's final between Williams and Azarenka scored a 4.9 television rating for ESPN. The men's final between Djokovic and Nadal drew a 2.8.
Last year, ticket sales for Indian Wells on the secondary market were up 16 percent after Williams announced her return.
As for riding coattails, the Williams sisters were drawing record viewership before the Federer and Nadal rivalry emerged.
As Fortune.com contributor Mary Pilon pointed out last year, "Venus and Serena are also attracting people to the sport through social media, with their combined 6.6 million Twitter followers, many of whom have little to no interest to tennis outside of the sisters."
Maybe Djokovic needs to cut Serena and Venus a check for riding their coattails?
In a statement released via Twitter (see above) WTA CEO Steve Simon expressed disappointment about Moore's comments. He added, "Tennis as a whole is enriched by the contributions and accomplishments of every player, both male and female."
You'd think Djokovic would understand this. Unlike some old guy using archaic terms like "lady players," Djokovic is 28 and has played his entire career during an era with female mega stars in tennis.
He could have addressed the merits of equal prize money without marginalizing female players. As BBC commentator Russell Fuller wrote,
"A debate about the relative strengths of the men's and women's game should not be off limits, but the language Ray Moore used was deeply offensive—and it is hard to see how he can command the confidence of the players who will return to Indian Wells next year."
Using Djokovic's logic, Serena Williams should have gotten a cut of everyone's 2015 U.S. Open paycheck.
But that's not how it works. Prize money is set prior to the tournament and distributed based on achievement on the court. All players contribute to the popularity of tennis.
If using Djokovic's pay plan, Williams, Federer and Nadal would leave every tournament with a big check, win or lose.
Maybe with a day to reconsider his comments, Djokovic will clarify his statement. Perhaps after considering the contributions of greats such as Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, Djokovic will think about makes professional tennis unique: the shared venue with men and women.
The NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments are happening simultaneously, at different venues and televised on separate networks. The biggest events for the LPGA and PGA never happen at the same time and place.
The shared stage at the Grand Slams and select WTA Premier and ATP Masters events sets tennis apart from other professional sports. It's benefited both female and male players.
Hopefully, Djokovic will remember that the next time he has an opportunity to speak on the topic.