As the build up to Wimbledon gets underway the debate over women playing fewer sets than men in Grand Slam tennis has been raised once again by researchers who say the ‘unfair, outdated’ practice reinforces gender stereotypes and should be called out.
Currently women play the best of three-set-matches instead of five at major tournaments like men. Dr Paul Davis at the University of Sunderland and Lisa Edwards, senior lecturer at Cardiff Metropolitan University, argue that this is an equality issue upheld by false beliefs about women’s physical limitations and repressive femininity ideals.
The pair say the practice is ‘indefensible’, as there are no physical or psychological barriers to women completing 90-minutes of football, 80-minutes of rugby, 18-holes of golf, or 26-miles of competitive running.
They also add that truncated Grand Slam tennis for women fuels arguments that they don’t deserve the equal prize money at majors they fought long and successfully for, because they play fewer sets than men to win it.
Their academic journal essay: Is it Defensible for Women to play Fewer Sets than men in Grand Slam tennis? highlights the need for a wider discussion in the sporting world.
Dr Davis, who is Chair of the British Philosophy of Sport Association (BPSA), said: “The Grand Slam sex-based sets disparity is a cultural tradition which degrades women, as it reinforces a false stereotype of female incapacity and in turn a fast dying notion of femininity, which is starkly challenged by what women do on the tennis court and in other sports. It should be ended.
“The tradition is also unjust to male Grand Slam players, since it forces them to play more sets purely on the basis of their sex, in turn upholding an oppressive notion of masculinity, which is arguably in decline among men.
“The harmonisation of sets would be an example of sport ‘working itself’ pure’, and if it’s found that women are incapable of four or five sets, the exchange could be reversed.”
He added: “Finally, sets harmonisation could be accompanied by an end to the ritual playing of the women’s Singles final before the Men’s. The easy solution would be to alternate from year to year.”
Is it Defensible for Women to Play Fewer Sets than Men in Grand Slam Tennis?
by Paul Davis & Lisa Edwards
Lacking in the philosophy of sport is discussion of the gendered numbers of sets played in Grand Slam tennis. We argue that the practice is indefensible. It can be upheld only through false beliefs about women or repressive femininity ideals. It treats male tennis players unfairly in forcing them to play more sets by dint of their sex. Its ideological consequences are pernicious, since it reinforces the respective identifications of the female and male with physical limitation and heroism. Both sexes have compelling reason to reject the practice.
Notably lacking within the body of work on gender in sport over the last few decades is discussion of the fact that women play fewer sets than men in Grand Slam tennis tournaments. Plenty has been written on the rationale for sex-segregated sport, a subject to which we have ourselves made a small contribution. Why women and men, excepting Mixed Doubles (which is yet regulated according to performers’ sex), play apart, is a question we don’t address here. The question we address is why, given the segregated arrangements, women play the best of three sets in Grand Slam tournaments, Singles and Doubles, while men must play the best-of-five in Grand Slam Singles and in fact play best-of-five in Wimbledon’s Men’s Doubles. While women footballers (soccer players) and women rugby players, for instance, play ninety and eighty minutes like their male counterparts, the state of affairs we interrogate is not entirely without echo in other sports. Women do the heptathlon rather than decathlon, run shorter distances than men in cross country races, use a smaller basketball, tee closer to the hole in golf and contest rounds of only two minutes in boxing, albeit some change is afoot.
Our focus, however, is not that women’s tennis contests are a priori best-of-three sets and men’s best-of-five, because that is not the case. Alongside Men’s Doubles in Slams other than Wimbledon, numerous Men’s Singles tournaments (e.g. the pre-Wimbledon Queen’s Club event) are best-of three, and as we see later, women have played best-of-five. Our focus is that in tennis’s Broadway shows – the Grand Slam of Wimbledon, US Open, Australian Open and French Open – women categorically play the best-of-three sets and men play the best-of-five in all Singles and some Doubles. It is at the least conspicuous that, again, both sexes play best-of-three sets warm-ups for Wimbledon Singles, which subsequently takes the form of best-of-three for women and best-of-five for men. We consider a few arguments for the current arrangement in Grand Slams, find them wanting and conclude that the different number of sets for women and men is indefensible.
The Capability Argument
It might be argued that women are, physically or psychologically, not up to four or five sets of tennis. Although, again, we know of nowhere in the academic literature that this argument has been made, it is continuous with historical social beliefs about women and retains appeal among some members of the practice community. We find scarce reason to consider this argument sound. Again, there is evidently no physical nor psychological impediment to women’s completion of ninety minutes of football, eighty minutes of rugby, eighteen holes of golf, 10,000m of competitive running or twenty-six miles of competitive running. Moreover, alongside the fact that five sets of female Grand Slam tennis have not been tried, it stretches credulity to believe that the super-fit players who play in women’s Grand Slam tournaments could not survive another one or two sets of tennis beyond the three which is their current maximum. Indeed, it seems even more dubious when one considers that women like Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, among others, played a five sets format in the WTA tour – Chase Championships from 1984 to 1998. However, that the majority of present-day elite female tennis players couldn’t survive a five sets format cannot be discounted; perhaps a trial run would show them physically collapsing or breaking down in tears in fourth or fifth sets. However, absent such an improbable result, the current state of evidence means that the rational policy is to proceed as though there is no physical or psychological impediment to women’s completion of five sets of Grand Slam tennis. If outcomes were to show that policy mistaken, it could be revised.
The Argument from Tradition
In a previous essay (Davis and Edwards 2014), we endorse Janet Radcliffe Richards’ observation (1980, 186-190) that some sex-based differences in practice are ‘innocuous cultural preferences, the end of which might significantly diminish the happiness of human beings’. We agreed with Richards that the rooting in tradition is a reason why people find cultural differences attractive. And we agreed, finally, with Richards that feminists must be committed to attacking all cultural distinctions which degrade women. The sets disparity between males and females can be fairly considered a cultural tradition. Is it an innocuous cultural distinction or one which degrades women?
There is strong reason to believe that the practice degrades women. It reinforces a precise and almost certainly false notion of female physical or psychological incapacity. Discussing sex-segregated sport, McDonagh and Pappano (2008, 20) note appositely that ‘hiding the women who can compete with men reinforces the false assumption that no women can meet the challenge’, and the current sex-based arrangement of sets in Grand Slam tennis similarly reinforces the improbable notion that professional female tennis players are incapable of four or five sets’ intense competition. It offers in the process some last-minute resuscitation to a dying notion of femininity which runs conspicuously counter to what we see female tennis players do for two or three sets, numerous times in a fortnight, in their Grand Slam matches, and again, to what we see many women do routinely in other sports. Given the symbolic hegemony of physical strength and stamina, it therefore reinforces male symbolic power, a reinforcement strengthened by placement of the Women’s Singles final before the Men’s, which casts the women’s final as a taster for the main feature next day. Burke (2010) has reiterated eloquently that the liberal ideal of female access to historically male spaces is a necessary but not sufficient condition of opposition, since the permissions, prohibitions and framings to which females are subject when they inhabit these spaces can ideologically fortify male domination. He (2010, 20) invokes MacKinnon’s suggestion that ‘liberalism is blind to the kinds of systematic subordination of women that radical feminists … take to be the real (our emphasis) source of women’s inequality,’ as well as Hirschmann’s summary that ‘…rights have been inadequate in tackling sexist barriers, because the framework in which they exist often cannot see harm to women as harm…’ Though Burke is addressing the question of segregated competition, the present case, again, seems a clear example: while the liberal feminist can affirm women’s access to elite tennis, that they play fewer sets than men in its most prestigious tournaments may be observed by the radical feminist as illustration of systematic subordination in sport and society, and as something the patriarchal order fails to see as a harm.
The flip side of this coin seems to be sex-based injustice towards male Grand Slam competitors, which forces them to play a greater number of sets purely because of their sex, with reinforcement of a mythology of masculinity which is arguably oppressive to men and which requires the mythical counterpoint of a femininity which is less physically and psychologically able.
The Interests of the Game
It is similarly doubtful that any normative theory of sport can overcome the preceding problems and give succour to the current arrangement. Broad Internalism, for instance, has a certain heterogeneity (see Simon 2000, 2015), but is defined by putatively internal elements of sport which function as ‘standards that have a rational basis independent of cultural, linguistic or pragmatic considerations’ (Simon 2004, 125). For most internalists, such standards are essentially related to the striving for bodily excellence, which promotes both the integrity of the sport and the human flourishing of the individuals. It is very hard to see how this manifesto could ground the disparate number of sets played by the sexes in Grand Slam tournaments. If we bleach out cultural factors, as the theory proposes, how does the striving for bodily excellence instantiated in Grand Slam tennis map on to fewer sets for women than for men? Are there specifically male and female bodily excellences in tennis, and do they take a form that requires longer male matches in Grand Slam tournaments? Coggon et al (2008, 9) have cited ‘…the markedly different style of men’s and women’s tennis’ as illustration of the value of sex-segregated sport competition. However, even if we press this argument for all it is worth, it is not clear how it supports longer male matches in Slams. Indeed, Coggon et al’s rationale could be extended by arguing that if there is a distinctive women’s style of tennis and people find it appealing, then there is a reason for having five sets a time, instead of three at most. To this, it might be replied that fewer sets is a part of what makes the women’s game distinctively valuable, since the lesser opportunity to mount a comeback heightens the tension. However, this reply, again, runs into the problem of Grand Slam Singles versus some other tournaments (including, again, Men’s Doubles at Slams other than Wimbledon). It is not the case that male tournaments are universally the best-of-five sets. Consider, again, pre-Wimbledon Singles tournaments. Both male and female players typically play best-of-three sets. Is the female tournament diminished as a result of the equivalent male tournament’s allowing no greater scope for comeback? Does the former lose an important part of its normative character as a female tennis tournament? Does the latter lose an important part of its normative character as a male tennis tournament? These would seem odd conclusions, but conclusions that seem entailed by the argument that the lesser scope for comeback is part of what makes women’s tennis distinctively valuable. And if women’s tennis is not a priori less valuable as women’s tennis when it runs the same number of sets as male equivalents, then an independent argument is needed that Grand Slam women’s tennis would be less valuable as women’s Grand Slam tennis if it ran the same number of sets as its male counterpart.
Again, does tennis better preserve its integrity through its Grand Slam arrangements, and do its performers, similarly, better flourish as human beings? It is appropriate at this point to emphasise Simon’s (2000, 13) key observation that ‘…broad internalists need not claim that all the principles to which they appeal are distinctive or restricted to the context of sport. Indeed, if the internalist analysis came up with principles that contradicted well supported and well known moral rules, we would be right to at least question the ethics of sport, not the traditional ethical theories.’ Broad internalism’s hospitality to established morality, such as justice, freedom and human flourishing, and the non-moral facts to which its operation is connected, reinforces its enlistment against the different number of sets played by the sexes in Slams, since the issue is ultimately one of justice, freedom, flourishing and (therefore) getting the non-moral facts right.
It is the alleged neglect of the social and historical situatedness of sports that motivates some, most obviously Morgan (2012), to reject Broad Internalism. Morgan awards normative primacy to what he calls ‘deep conventions’, which are socially and culturally situated normative frameworks which, uniquely, make rational debate possible, and which in turn do not submit to appraisal from a higher vantage point of transcontexual, shared principles – for there are, pace Broad Internalism, no such principles. Deep conventions are historically constructed and help us to determine the normative value of sport to certain practice communities. As Morgan (2012, 73) puts it, these deep conventions help us to understand ‘what sport demands of us in our efforts to be excellent, to meet its challenges, and why such demands warrant our pursuing them in certain ways rather than others’. Examples of such ‘deep conventions’ are amateurism and professionalism, which offer up different conceptions of athletic excellence. Paraphrasing Morgan, Simon (2014, 94) explains that the amateur and professional conceptions of sport ‘provide a framework within which we can reason about the purpose, value and ethics of sport’. Thus, deep conventions give rise to shared norms and values that ‘determine for particular communities of inquiry at particular times what counts as a reason, a good and compelling intellectual consideration, in favour of one conception of athletic striving over another’ (Morgan 2012, 73). We can from this perspective make normative progress with regards to conflicts that come into view within a particular sporting community. However, Morgan (2012, 75) contends that ‘when extramural disputes break out, rational inquiry and the deep conventions that authorize such inquiry lose whatever intellectual purchase they enjoyed when confined to a particular community of inquiry’. Deep conventions seem then to eschew the possibility of rational resolution to normative disputes that arise between rival accounts of sport (for example between amateurism and professionalism). When such disputes arise, Morgan (2012) concludes, there is no rational way forward, and to move past the inevitable impasse, practice communities need to rely on imagination rather than reason or argumentation. Imaginative solutions come in the form of ‘moral entrepreneurs’, able to ‘divine altogether new normative conceptions of sport’, which are made attractive to both communities (Morgan 2012, 76). Morgan (2015, 49) also dubs these new normative conceptions ‘gestalt switches’.
Morgan (2015, 49) seems to regard sport’s historical, systemic masculinist bias as a deep convention too, and one challenged by those moral entrepreneurs he dubs ‘athletic feminists’, who redescribed ‘the aim of sport, what skills, virtues and features qualify as athletic excellence, and, not least of all, what kinds of bodies are properly regarded as athletic bodies…’ According to Morgan (2012, 93), athletic feminists such as Iris Marion Young (1988) have successfully redescribed sports in ‘non-masculinist ways that decoupled athletic excellence from masculinist talk of the “gentleman” athlete and the manly (strenuous) striving for athletic glory’.
Exactly what impact deep conventions in general and athletic feminism in particular have on the topic of this essay is less than clear. Areas of uncertainty include (i) whether Morgan’s (Deep) Conventionalism is sound; (ii) the consequences of athletic feminism; and (iii) the extent to which and the way in which the world of present-day elite tennis is an athletic feminist world. Perhaps the best way in is by interrogation of (iii), an exercise undetachable from consideration of (ii). Athletic feminism’s consequences, like the consequences of feminism per se, are probably contestable or at least ambiguous, because athletic feminism is, like feminism per se, not homogeneous. For instance, the liberalisation of athletic bodies can be conceived as the affirmation of the less muscular and powerful body of conventional femininity (perhaps for sport men, too), as well as the affirmation of the more muscular and powerful female body that flouts the demands of conventional femininity. The preceding scepticism of ‘manly’ strenuousness seems in tune with the former vision, but there is, again, an athletic feminist counterpoint that wishes to decouple strenuousness and its conceptual cousins from masculinity, claiming them equally for females. What is clear is that the contemporary world of elite female tennis is one in which strenuousness, power and muscular bodies are affirmed, and where, consequently, the skills, virtues and features of women’s tennis are, pace Coggon et al., barely regarded as anything distinctive, if they are at all so regarded. We expect Serena Williams and her rivals to hit the ball very hard, to ace regularly and to be sweating profusely at the end of contests, just as we do their male counterparts. We expect extraordinary feats of athleticism from the said players, just as we do of their male counterparts. We also expect female Grand Slam winners to get the same prize money as their male counterparts. Our reasoning and argumentation about elite female tennis takes place within this largely degendered force field of rationality, a force field which serves to reinforce the oddity of the gender asymmetry presently under examination. It is no doubt open to dissenters to say that this force field demonstrates athletic feminism – or the only version worthy of acceptance – to have failed to sufficiently penetrate elite tennis; that women thud the ball with muscly arms, sweat, grunt and show fire in their bellies, it might be said, betrays the women’s game as regressively in hoc with a tired masculine model it should be trying to supplant or at least leave to the men. If this critique were sound, then an ideological space might be cleared for an athletic feminism that sponsors fewer Grand Slam sets for women than for men. However, this case needs to be argued; we need to be persuaded that we ought to make the gestalt switch that would not only legitimate the gendered asymmetry in Grand Slam sets, but would also delegitimise the immediately preceding features now taken for granted in elite female tennis.
The immediately preceding reflections perhaps signpost some grounds for reservation with Morgan’s Deep Conventionalism project. Morgan (2015, 49), again, proposes women’s sport tout court as an illustration of the type of innovation resulting from the gestalt switches ‘jumpstarted’ by visionaries (in this case, athletic feminists). Here, again, rational argumentation outlasted its welcome, therefore the imaginative stabs of the moral entrepreneurs were invited. Morgan draws the analogy here with the scientific paradigm shifts we see articulated in Kuhn (1970). However, this account seems to involve – at least in the case of athletic feminism – a too aggressive discontinuity between, on the one hand, critique of the present and the tools of rational argumentation, and on the other hand, the vision of the future. It is misleading to categorically cast athletic feminist disillusion with a present and accompanying enthusiasm for an alternative future as responses which outrun the dreary familiarity of rational argumentation, and which must therefore have recourse to supra-rational imaginative gambits that one can only hope others will find seductive. The narrative of athletic feminism includes the argument that women’s bodies and emotions are not, pace ‘masculinist talk’, as fragile as widely believed; the argument that women’s reproductive systems will not, pace ‘masculinist talk’, be damaged by exertion of the kind typically required in sport (and particularly required in elite sport); the argument that definitive moves in sport (e.g. hitting ball with a tennis racket) are not (unlike giving birth or fertilising an egg), pace ‘masculinist talk’, indexed to the sex of the performer; the argument that women are human and therefore, pace ‘masculinist talk’, flourish, like men, to the extent that they freely realise their capacities; the (related) argument that there is, pace ‘masculinist talk’, no defensible reason why women’s realisation of their physical abilities should be artificially confined by their sex; the argument that there is, pace ‘masculinist talk’, nothing intrinsically sexed about muscle, speed, strength, power, sweat, endurance or determination; and the argument that physical capacities in which women typically excel over men are not, pace ‘masculinist talk’, ipso facto less authentic physical capacities. The narrative also includes a diagnosis in terms of patriarchal power – itself a rational argument – of the popular and putatively false beliefs it challenges. Indeed, it is probably fair to characterise athletic feminism as piggy-backing on recognisable themes of Second Wave feminism, all of which involve recognisable, critical arguments, apt for rational endorsement and challenge in terms of the truth of premises and/or validity of argument. None of this is to deny the regular complexity of topics and arguments. Nor is it to rule out gestalt switches in Morgan’s sense, either in general or in the case of athletic feminism. (Again, though, we can ask why some of the imaginative moves of moral entrepreneurs persuade, giving us gestalt switches, and others don’t. Might it sometimes be partly because of social judgements about the soundness of constitutive arguments?) It is to say two things: first, one should be careful not to cast as a gestalt switch in Morgan’s sense what is in fact an unbroken process or result of an unbroken process of rational argumentation; and second, the specific case of athletic feminism is heavily characterised by ongoing rational critique of the present, eventuating in, again, the current, preceding force field of rationality within which discussion of the question of Grand Slam sets takes place.
Finally, before leaving reflection upon Morgan’s Conventionalism and its consequences (if any) for the question of Grand Slam tennis sets, it is worth a little reflection upon one specific facet. Morgan stresses the historically situated – as opposed to ahistorical and transcendent – nature of ideals (e.g. amateurism and professionalism) and consequent force fields of rationality. There is clearly a sense in which this is correct: ideals and, indeed, beliefs, emotions, language and arguably most content of consciousness is anchored in social, historical, economic, cultural and political conditions. After Hegel, Marx, Rousseau, Nietzsche and Bourdieu, for starters, there are few who would deny that. We would be unlikely to be discussing the topic of this essay were it not for the historically situated phenomenon of feminism, which in turn would not have arisen in the absence of enabling social, historical, economic, cultural and political conditions. Nor would we writers be doing it if we hadn’t gone to school and then university, which in turn would not have happened without enabling social, economic and political conditions. But we should be careful about what we conclude from these contemporary intellectual banalities. When we learn at school that two plus two equals four, the historically situated characters of the institution and our place in it do not mean that the truths of the basic arithmetic we learn are ‘historically situated’. Basic arithmetic is true tout court. Similarly, the historically situated nature of feminism (including athletic feminism) coexists with the fact that some of the questions within its mighty purview have answers which are true or false tout court. For instance, it is either true or false tout court that women are physically damaged by strenuous physical exertion; it is either true or false tout court that women’s reproductive capacities are undermined by the same; it is either true or false tout court that women’s emotions are not up to sport to the same extent as men’s; it is either true or false tout court that female flourishing is not dependent on the exercise of one’s capacities to the extent of male flourishing; and it is either true or false tout court that women qua women cannot withstand five sets of tennis. Benatar (2003, 195) has observed that confirmation of female ability to do a good many things is provided by the simple demonstration of such ability, e.g. given the chance to become lawyers, women have demonstrated the ability to do it. There is, again, nothing ‘historically situated’ about the fact that women qua women are capable of being lawyers, even if the chance to confirm that truth requires a set of enabling, contingent historical conditions. Similarly, there will be nothing ‘historically situated’ about the truth – if it be so – that women can play five sets of tennis, even if the chance to demonstrate that truth requires a set of enabling, contingent historical conditions.
Preferences, Separatism and Broad Internalism
In her powerful and nuanced essay on mixed competition, Sailors (2014, 71-72) invokes Birrell’s (1984, 26) distinction between separatism which is chosen or dictated. The latter is an exclusionary strategy from without, while the former can be based on strength and a vehicle of resistance and transformation. Does this distinction have purchase in the present case?
First, we don’t know what female Grand Slam players would choose if the best-of-three or best-of-five question were put to them, and it would be foolish to assume they would all feel the same. Broadly and most obviously, some may wish to grab the chance of demonstrating ability to play five sets, and some of these may feel in addition that such a display is ideologically oppositional in character. Others may feel that visible structural difference from the men’s game is, again, vital to any oppositional potential. That is, feminism’s basic sameness/difference controversy is liable to rear its head; paraphrasing Iris Marion Young (1990, 85), there are liable to be some female players who want to be like men and others who don’t.
There is no reason to deny that sport can function as an expression of gender identity, and perhaps keen reason to affirm it. Kretchmar (2015, 15) has compellingly defended a value pluralism that affirms sport as a site of (among other things) ‘individual identity, solidarity and community’. Celebration or expression of a gender identity is apt for inclusion in that list of values expressible in sport. However, alongside the inherent contestability of gender identities, there cannot be carte blanche for expressions of gender or any other kinds of identity in sport. Candidate identity expressions must reckon with, again, the sport itself, the ramifications of expressing the identity in the candidate way, and indeed, considerations such as those of justice, as we elaborate immediately below. Again, some female tennis players might keenly affirm their sport as a vehicle of gender identity, but reject the suggestion that this should take the form of fewer sets in Grand Slam tournaments. (It is worth noting here that female and male tennis players dress differently, so tennis is already an expression of gender identity in a way many other sports are not.) Moreover, female players who would wish to retain fewer Slam sets on the radical feminist ground of rejection of a ‘male standard’ need to reckon with the fact, again, that best-of-five is not a global male standard, therefore they are by their own lights measuring themselves by a ‘male standard’ when they play the best-of-three sets. They would also need to reckon, again, with the radical feminist-flavoured observation that their exclusion from best-of-five contests is inscribed with male notions of female physical limitation, which women have typically learned and embodied, and which have therefore been a mainstay of male power over them. Kane (1995) has called the modification of rules or conditions for female competitors ‘sport typing’, which Burke (2004) argues reinforces the view that sports need to compensate for female deficiencies. This view does not seem friendly to athletic feminism.
Another, obvious concern with the notion that female tennis players should choose the number of sets to play in Grand Slam tournaments is, again, that it would seem unjust to confine such a choice to female players. If women were to be allowed to choose how many sets they play in Slams, then an argument is needed as to why male players shouldn’t have the same choice. For all we know, there might be some male players who would see best-of-three Slam contests as an ideological strike against oppressively heroic ideals of masculinity, and if women are to be entitled to choices of ideological resistance, then there is no a priori reason why men shouldn’t be entitled to equivalent choices.
Furthermore, extending the choice to female but not male players, again, reinforces the othering of the former, since it seems to connote that the ‘real’ game out there in ludic space is the male version, with the female game a diminutive version that admits special dispensations, rather like asking an eleven-year-old at a social dinner if she would like adult or child portions.
More fundamentally, substantial argument is needed to show that the number of Slam sets should come down to player choice, and especially the choice of sex-based player groupings. There is much about tennis and every other sport which is given in the essential character of the activity. In tennis, for instance, no one playing Singles is given the choice as to whether they want a ball landing in the tramlines to be considered in, and there is no discussion about whether a different policy should apply depending on one’s sex. In precise contexts, especially at the recreational level, players may agree to such deviation from the norm, but it is significant that this is regarded as ‘relaxing the rules’, and is, again, not something that tends to be grounded on the sex of anyone on court. Rule changes do happen, of course (see Simon 2000, 12); however, the Broad Internalist suggests that they should be motivated and evaluated by how the sport in question should be conceived, or paraphrasing Schneider & Butcher (1998), by what is in the interests of the game. Again, it is not clear why tennis should be conceived as a sport whose most prestigious tournaments require women and men to play a different number of sets, nor why this arrangement better achieves any conceivable and sustainable point of playing Grand Slam tennis. Instead, it might be that harmonisation would be an example, borrowing language from Russell’s interpretivist treatment of games (2011, 267), of sport ‘working itself pure’, since tennis would be liberated from one of its inhibiting expressions of material and symbolic power, and therefore more just, more free and in turn more able to become what it really is. The content of this purification is not essentially a matter of player, spectator or, say, media choice, far less a matter of the choices of players as sex-based groupings. And such purification can, again, co-exist with expressions of gender identity in forms other than disparate numbers of sets in Grand Slam tournaments.
That women play the best-of-three Grand Slam tennis sets and men play the best-of-five is indefensible. It is discontinuous with practice in other sports. It seems unsupported at the level of physical and psychological capability, and seems to get no sponsorship from Broad Internalism or the universal moral principles such as justice, freedom and human flourishing, with which Broad Internalism as a normative theory of sport is continuous. Nor can the policy gain legitimation from Morgan’s notion of deep conventions, since elite female tennis is, on this ticket, presently scaffolded by a deep convention which reinforces the oddity of the policy.
The Grand Slam sex-based sets disparity is a cultural tradition which degrades women, since it reinforces a false stereotype of female incapacity and in turn a fast dying notion of femininity, which is starkly challenged by what women do on the tennis court and in other sport spaces. Therefore, the liberal feminist ideal of access, while a necessary instrument of opposition, is insufficient in this instance. The tradition is also unjust to male Grand Slam players, since it forces them to play more sets purely on the basis of their sex, in turn upholding an oppressive notion of masculinity, which is arguably in decline among men.
The harmonisation of sets would be an example of sport ‘working itself pure’. The sex-based disparity in sets played should be ended. Should cessation improbably reveal women incapable of four or five sets, the change could be reversed. Finally, sets harmonisation could be accompanied by an end to the ritual playing of the Women’s Singles final before the Men’s. The easy solution here is to alternate from year to year.
If we have been successful in demonstrating that the current situation is indefensible, then a question arises about the intrinsic merits of best-of-three and best- of-five sets contests. Is one format intrinsically superior to the other? Does one better test the defining skills of tennis? This discussion, although fascinating, must wait until another day.
Dr Paul Davis, lecturers in the Sociology of Sports and Exercise in the University of Sunderland’s Faculty of Health Sciences and Wellbeing.
He has a background in the Philosophy and Sociology of Sport, and is particularly interested in gender issues, physical activity and ethical issues in sport.
He is also interested in sport fandom, especially football fandom, the media in sport, and the mind in sport.
He was also appointed as the new Chair of the British Philosophy of Sport Association (BPSA) earlier this year.
For more information about Dr Davis visit our academic experts: http://experts.sunderland.ac.uk/portfolio/paul-davis/
Lisa Edwards, Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Philosophy in the Cardiff School of Sport.
She joined the School in 2008 and was appointed Programme Director for the BSc (Hons) Sport Studies Programme in 2013. Lisa contributes to both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes and has also been involved in organising and delivering workshops for fellow academics enrolled on the PgC Teaching in Higher Education. She also continues to work with the Sociology and Philosophy of Sport research group.
She has several publications in the Philosophy and Sociology of Sport.
Her research interests are in applied ethics of sport focusing, in particular, on sexism, gender and sexuality, and feminist philosophy. She has published in journals such as Sport, Ethics and Philosophy and the International Review for the Sociology of Sport.
For more information, go to: http://www.cardiffmet.ac.uk/schoolofsport/staff/Pages/Dr-Lisa-Edwards.aspx
1 Grand Slam Men’s Doubles matches, Wimbledon excepted, are the best-of-three sets. In fact, the only fixed rule is that Men’s Singles matches are the best-of-five sets. The 2017 official Grand Slam rule book states that, “All Men’s Singles Main Draw matches in Grand Slam Tournaments shall be best-of-five (5) sets. All other matches shall be the best-of-three (3) or the best-of-five (5) sets unless otherwise determined by each Grand Slam Tournament.”
3 The best-of-five format is also played in the men’s Davis Cup. The women’s equivalent of the Davis Cup is the Federation Cup, which follows a best-of-three format.
4 For instance, 2013 Wimbledon Women’s Singles champion Marion Bartoli told BBC News channel’s HARDtalk that women should not play the best of five sets because of the physical differences between men and women. She opined, “You can’t ask a woman to play for six hours.” (BBC News, February 5, 2014)
5 Similarly, the women’s Olympic marathon race takes place one week before the men’s.
6 For compelling argument that sexism that disadvantages women is undetachable from sexism that disadvantages men, see Benatar (2003).
7 On this facet, see, for instance, Willis (1982), Young (1990), Hargreaves (1994) and Lock (2003).
8 It is worth observing that Young’s (1979, 1990) treatment in at least two places seems to sit uncomfortably with any notion that female athletes should moderate their performance of conventionally masculine characteristics, since she argues that the historical female exclusion from sport reinforces a repressively passive female body-subjectivity, illustrated in the phenomenon of throwing ‘like a girl’. (And see Endnote 10.)
9 Shafer-Landau (2003, 258-260) has observed that most of our beliefs are contingent. For instance, our belief that ‘the earth is many billions of years old, roughly round, not at the centre of the universe, and the site of millions of generations of evolutionary activity depends on our living when and where we do.’ Yet ‘the fact that one’s views would probably have been different in other contexts does not defeat whatever justification one’s beliefs presently enjoy.’
10 MacKinnon (1987, 118) has said, ‘If you ask, not why do women and men do different physical activities, but why has femininity meant physical weakness, you notice that someone who is physically weak is more easily able to be raped, available to be molested, open to sexual harassment. Feminine means violable.’
11 For a more extensive discussion of male and female versions of rules in sport, see Kane (1995), McDonagh and Pappano (2008) and Burke (2010, 2014).
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