Has Virginia Wade Been Written Out of History?

imageIn the days after Andy Murray’s amazing victory at Wimbledon, this image has gone viral. Why?

The reporting of Andy Murray’s triumphant victory in the men’s singles Wimbledon final on Sunday has provoked some angry online comments, including this image, which implies that the press have ignored Virginia Wade’s victory in the women’s competition in 1977.

This is a ridiculous and inflammatory argument on several levels.

First of all, the press have not completely omitted the vital information that Andy Murray won the Men’s singles final.

Daily Mail: “first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years” 

The following as pictured on The Guardian’s website here:

The Independent: “Champion – Andy Murray, the first British man to win Wimbledon since 1936”.

The Daily Express: “Magical Murray – First British man to win Wimbledon in 77 Years”.

The Sun: “Finally, after 77 years, 15 PMs, 3 monarchs, Brit man wins Wimbo”.

The Times: “Murray ends 77-year wait for British win” as the headline, above it is a photograph with the caption: “Andy Murray savours victory and the Men’s Singles trophy…”

These front pages came under fire by someone blogging for The Guardian here and yet the one and only front page pictured that can honestly be said to be omitting the fact that Andy Murray is the first MAN to win for 77 years is the Telegraph, with its “After 77 years, the wait is over”, the text under the photograph and in the article is far too small to read, but I have to assume that it clarifies which tournament he won. The blogger quite rightly points out a selection of other winners at Wimbldon since Fred Perry, though I notice he or she did not mention any of the male or female doubles winners, such as Jamie Murray, that Britain can celebrate, or seniors or juniors. Why? Because the writer either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about doubles tennis. Just like most people in this country. It is a sad fact that the men’s singles game is of significantly higher public interest than any other form of the game. The hypocrisy of the writer of this unnecessary and inflammatory article is staggering.

Secondly, the women’s game is a completely separate sport for most of the year, only coming together at the major tournaments. British fans are famous for completely ignoring tennis for 50 weeks every year, only becoming enthusiastic followers during the two weeks of Wimbledon. Their knowledge of the players, therefore, is very sketchy. They will recognise Federer, Nadal and Djokovic because they have won Wimbledon. In the women’s game, they will probably recognise the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova. Now they will have heard of Marion Bartoli, the press coverage of her win is a related matter but probably deserves its own blog post. Those who follow the game a little closer will also recognise Azarenka, Kvitova, Errani, Radwanska, Wosniacki and many other great and up and coming players.

Anyone who watches any tennis at all will know all about Virginia Wade. Not only was she the last British woman to win Wimbledon, she is also currently a well-known broadcaster who appears on tennis programmes all year round, along with other British stars of the past like Sue Barker, Annabel Croft, Sam Smith and Jo Durie. The current players’ achievements are measured in terms of “the first British woman to … since …….. [one of these players]”. None of them would consider themselves to have been airbrushed out of history, their achievements are remembered with pride and affection by the British public, to as great an extent as the way in which they remember Tim Henman.

Admittedly it has taken many years of hard work by Billie-Jean King and many others to get prize money in the women’s game on a par with the men. However, this isn’t just the case in tennis. How many people can name a female British cricketer or footballer, despite the huge advances made by women in these sports? Tennis is also the only major sport to even have a professional women’s tour. Football? All amateur. Rugby? All amateur. Cricket? Some female international players get paid, but not whole teams and not from all countries. The women’s games just don’t attract the same volume of spectators that men’s sports do, and therefore less sponsorship, less TV income and lower income for the players.

Maybe women don’t have as much time and energy to go and watch sports events, which could cause a lot of knock-on effects and many men probably have less interest in the women’s sports than the men’s, for whatever reason. In tennis, the lack of a ladies’ tournament contender for a title is sure to have limited enthusiasm for the women’s game for British fans for the last thirty years, though that is about to change…

laurarobsonHowever, don’t blame the media entirely, they are writing for the public and will cater to the interests of their audience. Now that Britain has Laura Robson and Heather Watson to follow, just watch what will inevitably happen to the headlines when one of them wins Wimbledon (the women’s tournament, of course,) no-one will expect the headline “Laura Robson the first Brit to win Wimbledon for 40 years” to imply that Andy Murray’s win doesn’t count just because he’s a man! The headlines will be just as big, but they might not happen to mention she won the women’s tournament. Why should they? Why should we constantly have to clarify whether we are discussing men or women when it comes to a big achievement? Why should it matter, if we are all equal? And when we are discussing a male only or female only sports title, a big photograph of the winner holding the trophy ought to be a big enough clue which title is being discussed.

I don’t wish to be misunderstood here. I am a feminist and am often among the first to point out how important the language we use is. However, this case just stank of looking for an argument, of seeking to stir debate where none need exist. The papers DIDN’T “airbrush Virginia Wade out of history” at all, most headlines included the word “man” or “men’s” and those that didn’t largely clarified in the by-line or photo caption. Are the British public considered so lazy that we have to now assume the majority will not even read the first line of a front page story and literally JUST the headline? Really? Typsetters for the national press beware! Your punchy headlines now have to be painstakingly PC, even when a photograph speaks for itself.

I’m also NOT saying that there isn’t sexism in sport, or tennis in particular, I’m not saying that it’s right that women’s tennis is often overlooked by large numbers of people. Not at all. All I am trying to say is that this piece of viral vitriol was totally inaccurate and has caused a whole load of negativity around what should have been a huge celebration of Andy Murray’s achievement. I would love to get a quote from Virginia Wade herself and see how she feels about her image and achievement being used to stir needless conflict. I can’t imagine she would be too pleased.

– Thanks to my co-author on this post, Linzy Lyne.