News & Opinion

Sexism in sport

Martina Navratilova: Let female tennis players change their shirts on court

The Daily Beast

August 29, 2018

After accusations of sexism over Alizé Cornet receiving a code violation at the U.S. Open, one tennis great calls for female players to be able to change their shirts on court.

Former world number one women’s tennis champion Martina Navratilova was characteristically direct when asked whether French player Alizé Cornet should have incurred a code violation from an umpire after changing her shirt on court during a match at the U.S. Open.

The incident on Tuesday brought a deluge of online wrath and accusations of sexist double standards to the doors of the U.S. Tennis Association, especially given the amount of male flesh often on display during tennis matches as men change shirts between sets.

“If one is wearing a sports bra then of course it should be allowed,” Navratilova told The Daily Beast. “And if one isn’t wearing a sports bra, then it still should be allowed—although I for one wouldn’t do it.”

Cornet had returned from a ten-minute hot weather break between the second and third sets of her match against Johanna Larsson (which she lost), and realized her shirt was inside out. She turned her back to the crowd and reversed the garment while at the back of the court.

It was done with a swift modesty, especially compared to male players Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer sitting in their chairs, chests bared to the crowds, between sets during the same extremely hot weather.

Faced with an avalanche of criticism over Cornet’s “violation,” the USTA clarified in a statement Wednesday: “All players can change their shirts when sitting in the player chair. This is not considered a Code Violation. We regret that a Code Violation was assessed to Ms. Cornet yesterday. We have clarified the policy to ensure this will not happen moving forward. Fortunately, she was only assessed a warning with no further penalty or fine.

“Female players, if they choose, may also change their shirts in a more private location close to the court, when available. They will not be assessed a bathroom break in this circumstance.”

“This rule is outdated and impractical,” Billie Jean King wrote on Twitter of the violation incurred by Cornet.

Chris Evert was not available for comment, her spokesperson told The Daily Beast.

Speaking after the match, Cornet said, “I was going back on, and Mika [Kuzaj, Cornet’s boyfriend] told me I had my shirt on backwards, so I quickly removed it and put it back, it took two seconds. And then the guy tells me you do not have the right to do that, you will take a code violation and everything. I told him I will not play with my shirt the wrong way around. We get fines for breathing now, it makes no sense.”

The controversy over Cornet followed another sartorial brouhaha over Serena Williams’ black catsuit being deemed unsuitable for the French Open. Williams accepted the French Open’s ruling equably, her fans less so. At the US Open this week, she played in a dramatic black tutu designed by Virgil Abloh, which fans rushed to praise on social media.

There remains confusion over what Cornet’s original offense was, and whose rules she has broken.

Chris Widmaier, a USTA spokesperson, told The Daily Beast that the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) had its own “evolving and changing” guidelines on attire. But in a statement the WTA said the code violation handed to Cornet was “unfair and it was not based on a WTA rule, as the WTA has no rule against a change of attire on court.” The WTA did not return Daily Beast requests for comment.

Widmaier told The Daily Beast that the “ump” (umpire) had initially deemed Cornet guilty of “unprofessional conduct.” Cornet had been given a warning, but no further penalty or fine. Since then, the USTA’s position had been “clarified.”

But on what basis had been Cornet been in the wrong on Tuesday, and not on Wednesday?

“It’s a fair question,” said Widmaier. “Many of these behaviors fall under the discretion of the chair umpire. And perhaps the US Open and USTA did not fully explain what our position is on this. Though we regret it, we’re not putting the chair ump at fault.”

Then who was at fault, and why?

Widmaier said, “I do not believe chair umps have been provided with adequate clarification on the U.S. Open’s position as it relates to this rule.” The U.S. Open followed the “traditions” of procedures in the men’s ATP tour and women’s WTA tour, Widmaier said.

He then recommended The Daily Beast called the WTA whose full statement puts the blame squarely on the USTA.

“The code violation that USTA handed to Alize Cornet during her first round match at the U.S. Open was unfair and it was not based on a WTA rule, as the WTA has no rule against a change of attire on court,” the WTA statement read. “The WTA has always been and always will be a pioneer for women and women’s sports. This code violation came under the Grand Slam rules and we are pleased to see the USTA has now changed this policy. Alize did nothing wrong.”

Widmaier said that the USTA “regretted” the code violation given to Cornet, “but now we all know what the policy is.”

What is the policy exactly, The Daily Beast asked—that female players can now change wherever they like on court?

“Yes, that is correct but we’re talking about shirts, not entire outfits, and we do not expect many players to be changing in the middle of the court,” said Widmaier. “It was a very unusual set of circumstances that Ms. Cornet was facing.”

Male players take their shirts off for comparably long periods of time without any censure, The Daily Beast pointed out.

“That is why we clarified the position,” said Widmaier. “I don’t know what percentage of changes of shirts of men occur at the base line. My sense is 99.9 percent happens at the [umpire’s] chair.”

So women will be allowed to remove their shirts at their chairs, then, just like the men?

“Women can change their shirts wherever they like to,” said Widmaier.

And so can the male players. Wherever they want.

Widmaier strongly denied that up to now the USTA had been operating a sexist double standard.

“The U.S. Open was the first tournament to provide equal prize money for men and women in 1973. We pride ourselves on our record of treating both genders the same. We had miscommunication with our officials and we have now clarified our position. But let’s not lose sight of our track record of treating men and women fairly.”

Had Widmaier liked Williams’ tutu?

“I celebrate any type of creativity and individual flair,” he replied.