Women’s tennis is a tough sell in Toronto, according to WTA CEO Stacey Allaster. It’s so tough, in fact, that this year, Tennis Canada decided to create a last-minute men’s exhibition to give customers “a little more bang for their tennis buck,” according to this report from The Toronto Star.
“I think always here, particularly in Toronto, it’s a challenging market,” Allaster told reporters during a joint news conference with Billie Jean King before her induction to the Rogers Cup Hall of Fame. “And concerts, exhibition matches, had the exhibition Monday night with Monica [Seles] and Serena [Williams], Venus [Williams] and Genie Bouchard … this tournament, even under my leadership, always was looking at pushing the envelope to make this a real sport entertainment extravaganza.”
Tennis Canada offered $20,000 to all first-round losers from the men’s tournament in Montreal to fly to Toronto and play in a night-session exhibition match in order to bolster the tournament’s marketability (Bernard Tomic and Feliciano Lopez took up the offer). Their match, billed on the Rogers Cup website as a “first-of-its-kind men’s invitation,” took place in addition to the men’s exhibition matches as part of the Rogers Legends Cup (James Blake is scheduled to take on Pete Sampras on Friday night, Sampras and John McEnroe face off Saturday night and McEnroe and Jim Courier play on Sunday). However, according to The Star, the plan to create a “men’s invitational” was kept under wraps for fear of negative publicity.
So there it was. After Petra Kvitova beat Sam Stosur 6-3, 6-3 in Thursday’s night session (the day session featured top-five players Serena Williams, Agnieszka Radwanska and Li Na), 41st-ranked Tomic and 29th-ranked Lopez came out to entertain the crowd. For their first-round loss and participation in the exhibition, Tomic and Lopez made $30,155 each. Had they won their first-round matches in Montreal and lost in the second round, they would have taken home $18,800.
When reporters explained the gimmick to Ana Ivanovic, she laughed and then asked the obvious follow-up question: “Who is playing in Montreal from the girls?” Precisely. Ivanovic said the fair thing to do would be to send some of the women to Montreal as well, especially if the tournament says it’s trying to use the exhibitions as a way to sell tickets for the following year, when the men and women will switch cities.
“So why not? It’s a nice mix-up,” Ivanovic said.
King found out about the men’s exhibitions from reporters during her news conference. So while she and Allaster spent the beginning of their interview discussing the advancement and empowerment of women and the need to strive for equality, the segue into the unequal treatment of the women by Tennis Canada sent an awkward, mixed message.
“I don’t know what their purpose is,” King said. “I think they probably want both genders to have a chance to see themselves. I would. Are we having any of the women go up [to Montreal]?”
When the moderator informed her no women were being offered the same deal to fly to Montreal, she was of the same mind as Ivanovic. “Why aren’t the girls up there?” she asked. It’s the question no one seems to have a good answer for.
Williams backed the idea of giving the fans more tennis to watch and providing the early losers an opportunity to get more matches.
“[M]aybe next year we will see some of the women doing that hopefully. I won’t be in that category because I will still be in the tournament,” she said with a laugh.
Sloane Stephens had a more pragmatic reaction, highlighting the tournament’s need to satisfy sponsors.
“I think sponsors just want to see more people play, more matches,” she said. “I don’t think it has anything to do with women not being entertaining. I think we’re very entertaining. So I think it adds something to the tournament. I guess it’s nice to have boys around.”
This isn’t the first year Tennis Canada has injected the women’s tournament in Toronto with some testosterone. The last time the city hosted the women, in 2011, a controversial advertising campaign asked fans to “Come For the Ladies, Stay for the Legends,” referring to additional exhibitions featuring the likes of McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Courier and Michael Chang. Tennis Canada eventually replaced that slogan with “Making History, Re-Living History” after a feminist group complained that the original slogan was sexist and implied the men were the true stars of the tournament.
Allaster, who formerly served as the Toronto tournament director and Tennis Canada vice president, defended the decision to bring in the men.
“I think Tennis Canada, at the end of the day, what is this event about? It’s about generating money for the development of the sport,” she said. “Promoters need to embrace all of that. I support Tennis Canada in doing everything they can to make as much money for the next Milos [Raonic], the next Genie Bouchard, and for the next young boy or girl that dreams of representing this country. I think ultimately that’s what it’s about. I wouldn’t get too fussed about it.”
Stephens must have received that memo, because she didn’t sound too fussed.
“This ‘men come here’ has no effect on me,” Stephens said. “Not adding to my prize money and not taking away from my prize money, not giving me any points. Has no effect on me whatsoever.”