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It was supposed to be an occasion for healing and celebration: the return of Serena Williams to the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., her first time competing there since 2001 when spectators famously booed the then-19-year-old on the court. The desert crowd was supposedly angered over her sister Venus Williams pulling out due to a tendinitis flare-up — but, as Williams later wrote, “the undercurrent of racism was painful, confusing and unfair.”
The response couldn’t have been more different on Sunday when Williams, now 34, faced off with 26-year-old Victoria Azarenka of Belarus for the title. This time around, the crowd was fully behind the No. 1-ranked Williams, who last year won three of four Grand Slam championships. Despite the cries of “Serena!” echoing throughout the stadium, however, Williams was off her game, losing to Azarenka 6-4, 6-4 in the women’s final.
And yet it was not her defeat against Azarenka — whose triumph boosted her ranking from 15th to 8th in the world — that left Williams stinging. Rather, it was a series of shockingly sexist statements made earlier that morning by BNP Paribas Open director Raymond Moore.
Asked at a media breakfast about his thoughts on the current state of the Women’s Tennis Association, Moore, 69, responded, “In my next life when I come back, I want to be someone in the WTA, because they ride on the coattails of the men. They don’t make any decisions, and they are lucky. They are very, very lucky. If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport. They really have.”
The remarks cast a pall over the day’s events, and reporters were quick to pounce on them at Williams’ post-match press conference, where she swatted Moore’s comments down with all the power of her 120-mile-per-hour serve.
“Obviously, I don’t think any woman should be down on their knees thanking anybody like that,” Williams said. “I think Venus, myself, a number of players have been — if I could tell you every day how many people say they don’t watch tennis unless they’re watching myself or my sister, I couldn’t even bring up that number. So I don’t think that is a very accurate statement. I think there are a lot of women out there who are very exciting to watch. I think there are a lot of men out there who are exciting to watch. I think it definitely goes both ways. I think those remarks are very much mistaken and very, very, very inaccurate.”
Asked if Moore’s comments might have been misconstrued, Williams said, “Well, if you read the transcript, you can only interpret it one way. I speak very good English. I’m sure he does too.” (Moore is from South Africa.) “You know, there’s only one way to interpret that. Get on your knees, which is offensive enough, and thank a man, which is not — we, as women, have come a long way. We shouldn’t have to drop to our knees at any point,” she continued.
Inside a private luxury box hosted by tournament sponsor Moet & Chandon, celebrity guests such as Hilary Swank and Reno 911‘s Terry Crews sipped on goblets of champagne and took in the match. Seated in the front row were Jesse Metcalfe, 37, who shot to fame playing a horny gardener on ABC’s Desperate Housewives, and his girlfriend Cara Santana, 31, who has appeared on the WGN America series Salem.
Santana, who has blogged about sexism in the workplace, was disturbed by Moore’s statements. “Obviously these comments can be seen as nothing short of ignorance,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “It is unfortunate that Moore would be so careless when speaking about the working professionals in his field, let alone women or people in general. Creating commentary that segregates people by race, gender or sexuality does nothing to propel society forward.”
“To the contrary, it inhibits it. I think Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Serena Williams and so many more would disagree and take umbrage with his careless commentary. Perhaps, there should be a ‘director’ with a little bit more gratitude to all the athletes that enable him to have a career,” Santana continued.
Moore, a former pro player who helped build the Indian Wells tennis center and the tournament that made it famous, took over this year as director. Not long after William’s press conference, he issued a statement of apology, calling his remarks “in extremely poor taste and erroneous.”
“I am truly sorry for those remarks, and apologize to all the players and WTA as a whole. We had a women’s final today that reflects the strength of the players, especially Serena and Victoria, and the entire WTA,” Moore said.
On Monday night, BNP owner Larry Ellison announced that Moore had resigned earlier in the day, saying, “Ray let me know that he has decided to step down from his roles as CEO and tournament director effective immediately. I fully understand his decision.”
In his statement, he noted the “ongoing, multi-generational, progressive movement to treat women and men in sports equally.”
“Thanks to the leadership of Billie Jean, Martina Navratilova, Venus Williams, Serena Williams and so many other great women athletes,” Ellison said, “an important measure of success has already been achieved. I’m proud to say that it is now a decade-long tradition at our tournament at Indian Wells, and all the major tennis tournaments, to pay equal prize money to both the women and the men.”
March 21, 10:40 p.m. PT: Updated with Ellison’s statement of Moore’s resignation.
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