Forget the stunning brain fade, which disqualified Novak Djokovic from the US Open for hitting an errant ball into a female line umpire’s neck. Forget him staging a private tournament and sweaty after-party where several players are believed to have contracted COVID-19 earlier this year.
The World No. 1 was seeded well above his true rank as the global leader in tennis long before these headline-grabbing episodes. In 2016, Djokovic embarked on a campaign for men to receive more prize money at Grand Slams than female players. Given his sport was among the first to secure equal pay and exposure at its most prestigious events, Djokovic’s stance was retrograde, arcane and ominous.
And yet somehow, the warnings regarding his leadership in the ‘equal’ world of tennis were ignored. On the eve of the US Open, Djokovic launched the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA), a breakaway union designed to give his disgruntled peers greater leverage on issues such as revenue sharing and scheduling.
As its name suggests, the PTPA should represent all professionals, male and female. Not so. Its launch photograph too depicted a court packed with dozens of players, with president Djokovic defiant in the foreground. His brothers at arms are all just that . . . men. There is not a single female. No Serena. No Naomi. No Ash. Did Djokovic miss the memo that women play tennis professionally too?
Reassuringly, this counterintuitive oversight was condemned by some. In response, a PTPA consultant promised women would be included “in very short order”. How thoughtful of them. These men are some of the world’s most privileged individuals. They have time, money, and a battalion of advisors. And still . . . they couldn’t get it right.
Djokovic’s mistakes might well be a result of default, not design. In isolation, we might forgive them. But in totality, these mistakes point toward a reckless personality, establishing a players’ union that only represents half of the constituency. That he is cheered-on by other male players, while the females have little opportunity to get involved, is a concern not just for tennis, but for the ripple effect it casts on the norms of gender equality
The birth of this backward association in an impressively equal ecosystem that is tennis, is symptomatic of a much larger problem: while the world focuses on health and economics amid the pandemic, invoking Maslow’s hierarchy of needs like never before, equality goes out in straight sets. The true colours of the biased and the privileged shine, and under the cloak of the crisis at hand, initiatives promoted by unfit leaders like Djokovic set us back decades.
If Djokovic continues to lead after his latest self-inflicted wound, then I wonder this: are tennis’s achievements on the equality scoreboard all for money, not love?
Shivani Gopal is the Chief Executive of The Remarkable Woman and co-host of The Women’s Agenda Podcast.