It can’t be underestimated how much of an impact the world of tennis has had on the history of LGBT sports.
Some of the first openly gay athletes were tennis stars who went on to become pioneers of the game. WTA founder Billie Jean King was unfairly outed by a newspaper in 1981 before going on to become a leader in the world of equality. During that same year, Martina Navratilova spoke out about her sexuality for the first time by telling The New York Daily News she was bisexual. The two came out during a time where they risked losing sponsorship deals and that was before the devastating AIDS crisis began, which triggered widespread discrimination against the LGBT community.
In the coming years, there have been many top-level LGBT players on the WTA Tour. Including Amelie Maureasmo, Casey Dellacqua, Conchita Martinez and Alison Van Uytvanck. However, on the men’s side, it is a somewhat different picture. Bill Tilden, who won 10 Grand Slam titles throughout the 1920s, struggled with his sexuaility during a time where gay sex was illegal and not accepted by society. More recently, America’s Brian Vahaly was a former top 100 player during the early 2000s, but chose to come out after retiring from the sport. Clearly there is still much more that could be done.
Fortunately, tennis has its very own driving force helping bring the subject of LGBT issues into the limelight. Nick McCarvel is a renowned journalist who has worked at every Grand Slam in various positions ranging from writing reports to fronting online coverage for their official media channels.
“Would I like there to have been someone like a Brian Vahaly, who came out after his playing career, to have had come out while he was still pro, or a current, active player who felt empowered enough to do so? Yes, sure. But I don’t feel any impact one way or another.” McCarvel told UbiTennis about growing up with there being no openly gay role model in tennis.
“I think as I got more comfortable with who I am and in my standing as a tennis journalist, I felt driven to get the conversation going perhaps because of a lack of such an out male player.”
McCarvel has more than got the ball rolling. A couple years ago, he launched the LBGTennis events where individuals can discuss topics related to the gay community. The first coincided with the US Open and was held at the Housing Works Bookstore in New York’s SoHo area. Named ‘Open Playbook: Being Queer and Out in Pro Tennis’ he was joined by Vahaly and Dellacqua on the panel,
“In the spring of 2018 I had been thinking about doing something that brought the tennis and queer spaces together, and I finally felt like the time was right to act. I didn’t have any outstanding goal other than to prompt a discussion within the sport that I, a gay journalist, didn’t really see as lively,” he commented about what triggered him create the events.
Since the birth of its inaugural night, the concept of McCarvel’s idea has gone on to take place during Wimbledon and the Australian Open, too, with more top names joining his panels. However, there is, in a sense, a fine balance to organising these evenings.
“I’ve had a rather warm response from the players, but it’s been pretty quiet. We haven’t necessarily encouraged or pushed them to take part. Instead engaging a variety of facets within pro tennis and the recreational game,” McCarvel explains about promoting his concept.
“Two-time major finalist Kevin Anderson attended one of our events ( Australian Open 2019) and was a huge support, and players like Nicole Gibbs have voiced their support online. Former players Billie Jean King, Brian Vahaly, Casey Dellacqua, James Blake and Rennae Stubbs have been speakers at one point or another and current players Alison Van Uytvanck and Greet Minnen were a part of #LGBTennis at the US Open last year.”
To save the prospect of repetition, each of the five events held so far have had a different dynamic whilst raising money for charity. Some of the organisations that have benefited include: Housing Works and New York Junior Tennis & Learning in USA, Stand Up Events in Australia and Pride Sports in the UK.
McCarvel, undoubtedly, has a lot to be proud about when it comes to the events he has helped organise and run. But what has his standout achievement been so far?
“Having the AELTC invite us onto the grounds of Wimbledon for our event there last summer was amazing; and Billie Jean King was our speaker that day,” he said.
“And having 400+ people attend our event at the USTA National Tennis Center last year on the eve of the US Open was pretty cool, too!”
Everybody has a part
Critics could argue why events like these are needed in 2020. A 2015 worldwide study called ‘Out In The Fields’ found that 8 out of 10 gay men and women have experienced verbal homophobia in sport. To put this into context, a total of 9494 people were surveyed. The report also found that almost half (49%) of gay men and one in four (24%) lesbians under the age of 22 feared that they would be bullied if they came out in team sports.
These findings can only be partly applied to tennis as it is an individual sport but it does highlight the fear some have about coming out, especially on the men’s Tour, which has more than 1000 players with an ATP ranking and none of them are openly gay or bisexual. Ironically, back in 2010, tennis was voted the most gay-friendly sport in a poll ran by British organisation, Stonewall.
“There are so many layers. I think the individuality of the sport and — at times — the loneliness can be impactful in a negative way. The sport can only help to break down these barriers by meeting itself where it’s at and being willing to do the work in making things change,” McCarvel said.
“It’s similar to what we’re seeing — though on a much bigger scale — happen with the Black Lives Matter movement around the world. We need to be open with dialogue, ideas, differences, different people… and tennis has that need to do so with the LGBTQ+ community so it can continue to grow and evolve.”
McCarvel’s commitment to the cause is to be praised but change can’t be created by just one person. It could be argued why the campaign hasn’t attracted more investment or interest from any of tennis’ seven governing bodies over the years. Although that is slowly changing with the US Open hosting its first ever ‘Open Pride’ night last year.
“I think they are getting there. I’ve brought to their attention these issues and I think it’s on their radar. For the #LGBTennis events/evenings, I’ve worked with Tennis Australia (TA), the USTA, the All England Club, the WTA and — to a lesser degree, the ATP, ITA, Tennis Canada and LTA,” he said.
“Where is their player education series? How are they making tennis as inclusive for every recreational player out there no matter where they come from or who they are? TA has done a great job with the latter, but am I frustrated? No. I just want to see progress.”
— Nick McCarvel (@NickMcCarvel) September 5, 2019
Then there is also the power of support from straight-allies in the sport, especially among active players. It isn’t very often that gay-related questions are asked to the likes of Roger Federer and Co, but when they have, there has always been a positive response. 20-time Grand Slam champion Federer told The Body Serve in 2018 ‘It doesn’t matter where you came from, who you are, I’m all for it that you’re open about it (being gay).’ Later that same year Novak Djokovic says during the ATP Tour Finals: “It’s everybody’s right to have sexual orientation as they desire, any kind of direction in life they desire. I respect it.”
“When Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic were asked about the issue in the press in the summer of 2018 it made international headlines when they spoke out on the issue. I know not a lot of LGBTQ+ activists feel as though we need to rely on or promote allies, but in sports, I think they’re big because of how heternormative the culture is.”
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect is that tennis, in some ways, has been a leader when it comes to representation of LGBT people in sport but at the same time still has a lot of work to do in many other ways. It is for this reason why McCarvel’s LGBTennis events have been inspirational.
I have no idea if there are any gay professional tennis players currently on the ATP Tour or if they will come out soon. The only hope is they can seek some sort of comfort from what McCarvel is doing as he issues his own coming out advice.
“There is some conservative thinking in the sport – and that’s fine – but the more you can be your authentic self on the court, in the locker room, in the press room, in the hallways of the Grand Slam arenas around the world – that is all very, abundantly important. And support one another! Tennis is wonderfully gay. This sport touches the queer community like no other! Let’s highlight that. Let’s embrace it and do our (small little) part,” he concluded.
EXCLUSIVE: How The ATP Plans To Make The Tour More Welcoming For LGBT Players
The governing body of men’s tennis has received praise for taking a proactive approach to the topic with the help of a leading LGBTQ+ organisation and a top research university.
During the first week of the US Open, there was an abundance of rainbow-theme flags and wristbands worn by both players and fans to mark the tournament’s first-ever Open Pride Day.
The event was part of the USTA’s Diversity and Inclusion strategic platform which aims to make tennis more inclusive. Unlike the women’s game, there are no openly LGBTQ+ players on the men’s Tour and there have been few historically, even though various players have spoken of their support for anybody on the Tour who decides to come out. Including Stefanos Tsitsipas and newly crowned US Open champion Daniil Medvedev, who were questioned about the topic following their second round matches. Meanwhile, Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime revealed that there is an ongoing survey related to LGBTQ+ issues being conducted by the ATP.
“Recently I’ve started doing a survey inside the ATP about the LGBTQ+ community,” he said. “It’s important these days to be aware of that and to be open-minded and the ATP needs to do that, in today’s time it’s needed.
“The reason we don’t have openly gay players on the ATP Tour, I’m not sure of the reason, but I feel me, as a player, it would be very open, very welcome. Statistically, there should be some, but for now there’s not.”
In response to Auger-Aliassime’s comment, UbiTennis looked into the work currently being done by the ATP alongside two other parties. Their decision to venture into LGBTQ+ representation on the Tour is part of their recent commitment to support the mental health and wellbeing of their players and staff. Last year, in May, they formed partnerships with Headspace and Sporting Chance.
The survey currently being conducted by the ATP started after the governing body of men’s tennis reached out to Lou Englefield, the director of Pride Sports, a UK organisation that focuses on LGBTQ+phobia in sport and aims to improve access to sport for all LGBTQ+ people. Through their connection, they contacted Eric Denison, a behavioural science researcher at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences. Denison was the lead author of the Out on the Fields study, the first international study on homophobia in sport and the largest conducted to date.
“I have been personally impressed with the initiative of the ATP and their desire to find ways to mitigate the broad impact of homophobic behaviour (in particular), not only on gay people, but on all players.” He told UbiTennis during an email exchange.
“We know of no other sporting governing body in the world that has been proactive on LGBTQ+ issues, and has taken a strong focus on engaging with both the LGBTQ+ community and scientists to find solutions.”
Denison says the norm has been for sports bodies to address this issue after they have been either pressured to do so or if the LGBTQ+ community got the ball rolling themselves. Incredibly, research conducted as part of the Out On The Fields initiative documented 30 separate studies which found sports organisations ignored discrimination experienced by LGBTQ+ people in sport.
Monash University has supplied the ATP with a series of scientifically validated questions, which they are using to ‘look under the hood’ at the factors which supports a culture where gay or bisexual players feel they are not welcome. The methodology is similar to a study Denison conducted in 2020 that focused specifically on the team sports rugby union and ice hockey.
“We suspect that tennis isn’t inherently more homophobic than other sports, or traditionally male settings. Instead, there is a disconnect between people’s attitudes towards gay people (e.g. the recent pro-gay comments by top players) and their behaviour, specifically their use of homophobic banter and jokes,” said Denison.
“This behaviour, which is largely habitual, creates a hostile climate for young gay/bi people who drop out or hide their sexuality. This means gay/bi players are invisible in youth tennis and leads to the downstream problem of no professionals. The banter/jokes continue because people think it is harmless.”
The hope is that players will also agree to be interviewed by the researchers for them to get a better understanding. All of the results will then be used by Pride Sports and Monash University to recommend evidence-based solutions. It is unclear as to how long the study will take or when the findings will be ready.
Former top 100 player Brian Vahaly is one of the few players to have been both openly gay and played at the highest level of the men’s game. However, he didn’t fully come to terms with his sexuality until after retiring from the sport at age 27. Speaking to UbiTennis earlier this year, Vahaly shed light on the potential barriers for gay players.
“There were a lot of homophobic jokes made on Tour. It’s a very masculine and competitive environment,” he said. “You don’t see a lot of gay representation, except for the women’s Tour. With me not having the personality of an outspoken advocate (for LGBTQ+ issues), certainly not in my twenties, I needed some time to understand myself. To me, in tennis I didn’t feel like there was anybody to talk to or anybody that was going through anything similar.”
The ATP has spoken with Vahaly about their initiative and he has become ‘quite involved.’ Through their discussions, he got acquainted with Denison for the first time. As a professional, Vahaly peaked at a ranking high of 64th in the world and won five Challenger titles. After retiring from the Tour, he has served on the USTA’s board of directors since 2013.
“I am happy to hear that the ATP is finally taking action to address this issue. I’m impressed they are taking a thoughtful, data-driven approach to make a meaningful difference here,” he told UbiTennis.
The ATP aims to make the men’s Tour more welcoming to potential LGTBQ+ athletes playing either now or in the future. For those who question if such an initiative is important in 2021, you only have to look at the younger demographic.
Sportsnet quoted CDC data from 2019 which showed that 26% of American LGBTQ+ teenagers aged 16 or 17 has contemplated suicide, five times more than those who identify as straight (5%). Among those teenagers who heard homophobic terms, 33% self-harmed and an additional 40% considered doing so.
More than 2000 players around the world currently have an ATP ranking.
2020 Tokyo Olympics, Djokovic on the heat and the new scheduling: “I’m glad they listened to us”
Speaking to Ubitennis, the world number one describes the work that he, Medvedev and Zverev (among others) have done to obtain better playing conditions
So far, the tennis tournament at the 2020 Olympics has made headlines less for the match-play than for the difficult conditions in which it has been taking place due to the heat and the humidity. In the women’s draw, for instance, four players have been forced to retire during their matches: the last one has been particularly shocking, as Paula Badosa was taken off-court on a wheelchair after collapsing late in the first set of her quarter-final match against Marketa Vondrousova. Luckily, these issues appear to have finally caught the attention of the International Tennis Federation: starting tomorrow, no match will be played before 3pm (7am in the UK).
Part of the credit for this (still belated) decision goes to the lobbying and the complaints of the players, as world N.1 Novak Djokovic explained while speaking to Ubitennis CEO Ubaldo Scanagatta in Tokyo: “I’m glad the decision was made to reschedule tomorrow’s opening matches at 3pm. Today we went to speak to the supervisor – when I say ‘we’ I mean myself, Medvedev, and Zverev, along with the team captains. I have spoken to Khachanov and Carreno Busta as well, so the majority of the players who will feature in the quarter finals was of the same opinion.
“Of course I would have wished for this decision to be made a few days ago, but it’s still a good thing,” he added. “Nobody wants to witness incidents like the one that occurred to Badosa.
“The conditions are really brutal. Some people might think that we are just complaining, but all resistance sports (and tennis should be included among them) are taking place later in the day because the combination between the heat and the humidity is really terrible.”
He then concluded: “I’ve been a professional tennis player for almost 20 years and I’ve never experienced such hard conditions for so many consecutive days. It may have have happened once or twice in Miami or New York, but just for one day, whereas in Tokyo the situation is like this every day. I think that this decision will benefit the fans as well, because playing later allows us to play our best – these conditions were just draining for us.”
Article by Lorenzo Colle; translated by Tommaso Villa
Mats Wilander Exclusive: Matteo Berrettini Will Win A Grand Slam
UbiTennis founder Ubaldo Scanagatta speaks to the former world No.1 about Berrettini’s historic win at Wimbledon.
Swedish tennis great Mats Wilander has praised Matteo Berrettini for his run to the Wimbledon Final during a one-to-one interview with UbiTennis.
25-year-old Berrettini has become the first Italian man in history to reach the final of the Grand Slam after beating Hubert Hurkacz 6-3, 6-0, 6-7(3), 6-4. Throughout the clash he was impressive behind his serve where he fired 22 aces and won 86% of his service points. This year he is unbeaten on the grass and is currently on a 10-match winning streak following his triumph at Queen’s last month.
“Breaking the first game of the fourth set is to me the sign that we all look for in players. Whatever happens in the third (set) should not matter and he came straight back,”Wilander tells UbiTennis.
“That’s my indication that he will be one of the best players in the world. He will win a Grand Slam one hundred percent, for sure, if he stays healthy.”
Wilander’s bold prediction centres around Berrettini’s game on both grass and hardcourt. However, he is less optimistic about his chances on the clay at present until his backhand becomes more powerful.
As to why the former world No.1 has so much confidence in Italy’s top player, he says it is his ability to not expose his weaknesses during matches. Drawing parallels between him and Roger Federer. The player Berrettini comprehensively beat in straight sets earlier in the week.
“He knows how to hide his weakness and most great players know how to hide their weaknesses. Roger Federer is the perfect example. His backhand compared to the serve and the forehand. He stays alive with the slice and he comes over (to the net) sometimes when he has to,” he said.
“I think Matteo has figured out that he can stay alive with the slice. But the difference is that he is willing to slice and come in. He’s also double the size of Federer at the net so it is difficult to pass him.”
It wasn’t until the age of eight when Berrettini started to focus more on tennis after being asked by his younger brother to play more. As a professional he has won five ATP titles since 2018 and is the highest ranked ATP player from his country since Corrado Barazzutti back in 1978. He is coached by Vincenzo Santopadre, Marco Gulisano and Umberto Rianna.
“I would be so encouraged if I was coaching him. For the coach it must be like oh my god we are looking at a player who has (good use of his) hands and hides his weakness though the rest of his game,” the seven-time Grand Slam champion commented.
“I don’t why it has taken him a bit longer (to break through). I know he started a little bit later but I think he’s a natural at the big moments.”
On Sunday Berrettini faces the ultimate test against Novak Djokovic who will be seeking his third consecutive Wimbledon title and sixth overall. He has lost to the Serbian twice before on the Tour, including the French Open earlier this year. The Italian enters the final as the underdog but Wilander thinks he shouldn’t be underestimated.
“I think he has a good chance, I really do because that serve (of his) is different and he has a different forehand. He is not afraid to stay alive,” he concluded.
UbiTennis’ full interview with Wilander can be listened to below
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