Sunday, December 16, 2012

Navratilova, King, being feminine and "smelling a bit lesbo" - Part 1

From the book Én Bold Ad Gangen by Anders Haahr Rasmussen

Pages 76-78

Women's tennis has become a masculine sport. It wasn't always. At the end of the 1800s, when it was mostly played at tea parties held in the gardens of well-off Brits, tennis was one of the few sports a respectable lady could play without doing something as unladylike as perspiring, thus risking her eligibility on the marriage market.

For a long time, tennis offered women a chance to exercise their bodies in a way that, even at the elite level, didn't compromise society's ideals of feminine behaviour. One didn't become less of a woman by playing tennis.

It's different today. When you get closer to court level, it's obvious how unusually hard the players hit the ball, how powerful their movements are, how aggressively they express themselves, and how big and strong they have to be to compete at the highest level in such a demanding sport. The game can still be beautiful to watch, and fine motor skills, talent, precision, balance and coordination haven't become redundant, but it relies more on raw physical power and hard work than ever before.

If Martina Navratilova learned what the limits were for training and how strong she could become, and how hard you could hit before being referred to as "a wandering mixed doubles pair", her successors have too. When Gisela Dulko is happy about her status as a pin-up, and emphasises that she isn't just a tennis player, but also a woman, it's because she knows there's a built-in contradiction between being those two things. When Caroline Wozniacki puts on make-up, paints her finger nails, and puts on glittering jewellery and a frilly dress before she goes out on court, it's to assure the world: yes, she acts like a man, but she's a real woman.

It's not only a question of vanity; it's also a question of money. The problem with women who act like men is that they "smell a little lesbo". And the problem with lesbians is that they're bad business.

This was clear to Martina Navratilova in that summer of 1981 when she started working with Nancy Lieberman. Navratilova's colleague, the ageing tennis legend and six time Wimbledon champion Billie Jean King, had a short time before been hauled into court by a female ex-lover who wanted money out of their now dead affair. The media had jumped all over it. The tennis world was in shock.

The leadership of the WTA went directly to King, who had been one of its absolute top names for over 10 years, and told her that the women's professional tour would be destroyed if she came out.

Navratilova was worried. What would happen if it became known that Nancy Lieberman was more than just her trainer? Would the tour's economic backbone, the world-wide door-to-door beauty product company Avon, drop its sponsorship?

"I've heard," said Navratilova to a journalist, "that if I come out -- if another top player talks about this -- Avon will pull its sponsorship."

She was right. Avon was gone within a year. Billie Jean King lost over one and a half million dollars in sponsor earnings and was the only player left in the world who couldn't get a sponsor's logo on her playing clothes. Martina Navratilova, without a doubt the best tennis player ever, never got close to earning the sponsorship money she deserved. Instead, she was suspected of molesting the ball girls in the dressing room. (Footnote: One of the 80's most well know talk show hosts, Arsenio Hall, made one of the more innocent attacks when he asked the rhetorical question:"If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we get one on Martina Navratilova?")

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