It’s that time of the year again when tennis enthusiasts are treated to freshly mowed lawns, pristine white outfits and a fortnight of high octane tennis at Wimbledon. As the much anticipated tournament was readying to get underway, a seemingly hilarious press-meet with Roger Federer sent fans in a tizzy.
For the uninitiated, Roger Federer, a 20-time grand slam champion was ‘complimented’ at the pre-Wimbledon press conference by a reporter who said that he ‘looked even more handsome than last year’. Following the reporter’s gushy remark, the room immediately erupted in laughter.
Federer, who was caught off guard, beamed with a huge smile and graciously said thank you. The reporter continued with her question, “How do you feel?” referring to his fitness, to which Federer, who is known for his cheeky humour, joked, “I feel great now. …I feel incredibly sexy,”
As the laughter began to die down, the reporter went on to ask an important question about Federer’s physical fitness to which the 36 -year-old player gave a detailed response.
The video has since gone viral and Federer’s legion of fans have liked and shared their idol’s quick- witted response.
On the surface of it, this seems like a fun, light-hearted exchange between a player and a journalist but a closer look at the incident reveals the sport’s deep-seated fixation with physical appearance.
In 2013, John Inverdale, a BBC commentator had said on air that French tennis player, Marion Bartoli was never going ‘going to be a looker’. As his comments drew flak from players and fans alike, Bartoli went on to win Wimbledon the same year.
Bartoli’s was not an isolated incident.
More recently, 23-time grand slam champion Serena Williams was asked at a press conference if she was intimidated by her rival, Maria Sharapova’s looks. Williams shot back, asking the reporter if she had ever been intimidated on a tennis court.
Similarly, great tennis players (women players in particular) like Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Amelie Mauresmo and Justine Henin among others were subject to cruel and dehumanizing comments about their physical appearance by reporters, commentators and even fans.
While many might argue that linking instances of sexism with a compliment is an exaggeration, more so when the player was visibly comfortable. But comments on the ‘prettiness’ or ‘handsomeness’ by journalists at press conferences are problematic because they normalise this unhealthy fixation on physical appearance.
Not only are such overtures unprofessional, but they set a precedent that makes conversation about appearance acceptable at pressers. At a time when the sport is facing other pressing concerns like anti-doping procedures and ranking problems, misplaced 'compliments' can also set the wrong tone.
It is one thing for an excited fan to call Federer handsome but when a reporter decides to quip about a player’s looks, it normalises what Williams, Bartoli and Mauresmo were asked. Given how scores of players have been made to endure jibes like these, the onus should be on sports-journalists, reporters, commentators, players and even fans to steer the conversation away from toxic standards of physical appearance and volley for change.