Saturday, May 15, 2021

How commentators dishonor professional tennis

I am continually amazed by the unprofessional things that tennis commentators say and, and equally amazed that they are allowed to say them. Though a lot of people don't think language is very important (I've been "reprimanded," and even attacked, for pointing out sexist language in the tennis world--and in other worlds--because "that's what you want to spend your time complaining about?," "there are bigger fish to fry," etc.), but it is. Very. In fact, there is no more significant currency among us than our words. Through language, we express knowledge, respect and empathy--or the lack of them

Also, saying words is the major part of some jobs; for example, the job of tennis commentator. It is reasonable to expect a professional to do a good job handling a major part of her or his job.

But many tennis commentators do not appear to care that much about any of these factors. These are the areas in which commentators fail us again and again:

Mispronouncing players' names

This is not a problem in other sports, but it's a huge one in professional tennis. I listen mostly to U.S. and British commentators, and they constantly mispronounce players' names. Sometimes they even brag about how they mispronounce players' names, which is both disrespectful (as is mispronouncing names in the first place) and arrogant. 

It would seem that people who have been exposed to eastern European names for many years would learn that there are set patterns for pronouncing those names. The patterns are clear, and it doesn't take a Ph.D. to recognize them. But in every match I watch, there is at least one commentator who will (surprisingly) correctly pronounce an eastern European name, and then turn right around and mispronounce another one in which the same pronunciation pattern exists. There is only one explanation for this, and it isn't a nice one.

(Years ago, an ABC commentator did a not very amusing (and somewhat physically creepy) interview with a young player about her "difficult" name, and she explained how to pronounce it. After the recorded interview was shown, the commentator proceeded to again pronounce the player's name incorrectly. Draw your own conclusion.)

So commentators, when it comes to pronouncing names, are either disrespectful, not very bright--or both. But there is another factor involved. If they cannot learn the (rather simple) patterns of pronunciation, or if they come across a name that especially stumps them, all they have to do is check the WTA pronunciation guide. Obviously, they do not, so one has to wonder whether laziness is also at play. (Or maybe they just don't care.)

And it isn't just commentators. A few years ago, I had two tennis journalists (one of whom is quite well known) "correct" me (and argue with me) when I correctly pronounced a German player's name. I wish that players would follow the lead of Dinara Safina and Julia Goerges, and insist on being called by their correct names. But that doesn't mean that it's the players' job to make sure that their names are pronounced correctly--it's the job of the individuals who are paid to do the pronouncing.

Using sexist language

Calling any female over 18 a "girl" is sexist, and calling women in their late 20s and early 30s "girls" is very sexist. Calling tennis pros "young ladies" infantilizes them; that is a term that we use (well, I don't) for female children, and its connotation is obvious.

Then there's the issue of commentators discussing "tennis" when what they mean is "men's tennis." They are not the only ones who do it--I recall being asked "What's wrong with American tennis?, " and when I said "Are you kidding?! Serena, Venus, Sofia, Madison, etc." the answer was "Oh, you know, I meant the men."

Andy Murray sums it up nicely in this interview:

Using other offensive language

A friend once said to me, "I hate political correctness." My response was to tell tell him that "I hate the term 'political correctness.'" Yes, there have been a couple of terribly stupid (and damaging) things done by people who didn't have a clue about the subject (the horrible "niggardly" incident comes to mind), but in general, a call for a change in language is a call for respect to be paid to a member of a particular group. 

Often--very often--that group is the group known as "women and girls." But tennis commentators manage to offend other groups, too, by using terms and expressions that are offensive. The most common of these is the declaration that a player "has gone walkabout" when she suddenly mentally checks out of a match. This term originated among commentators when Evonne Goolagong was on the tour. Goolagong is an Aboriginal Australian, and the walkabout is an Aboriginal rite of passage in which an adolescent male makes a journey to the wilderness. 

Mainstream society did not understand (or want to understand) the walkabout, so those who participated in it were thought to be lazy, transient, etc. To apply this  twisted meaning of the term to Goolagong was flat-out racist (commentators also called her "the little chocolate drop").  To continue to use it to describe a player's little mental vacation is still an offense against Aboriginal people.

A term that commentators often use is that a player took her or his opponent "to the woodshed." This is a direct reference to a truly horrible type of child abuse, and it has no business being in the sports lexicon. Neither does the often-used (I heard it all week in Rome) term, "she got a scalp." That is, of course, a reference to an especially cruel practice performed during some wars in world history, and--as recently as the 19th Century--a practice sanctioned by the U.S. government against Native Americans. 

Using lame metaphors that elevate other sports over tennis

Way back in the day, some women wrote and illustrated a very funny book called Titters. On the back cover were some hilarious fake blurbs, one of which said "Makes Charlotte Bronte look like Emily Bronte!" Well, that's the kind of metaphors that tennis commentators use all the time. Terms like "get to the finish line," "she teed off," "that's just batting practice for her," and "if that were a baseball pitch....," make tennis subordinate to almost all other sports. Football, basketball, golf, and baseball commentators are not using tennis metaphors to describe what's going on on the field, the court, the greens, and the diamond.

Also, it is just terrible metaphor construction, and makes Charlotte Bronte look like Emily Bronte--minus the satire.

Words are very important, and commentators have an important job in which words are almost everything. Tennis, and especially women's tennis, deserves better.


Todd.Spiker said...

Not sure it necessarily fits into this post, but it's always worth mentioning the "do a twirl" moment in Melbourne from a few years ago. 🙄

There is *one* tennis term subset that gets some play in other sports, as when commentators or reporters will say an athlete or team had a result "on their racket" before ultimately losing or might be looking (though it's more rare) to "serve it out" if they have a lead and just need to proverbially dot-their-i's and cross-their-t's in order to put away a victory.

Diane said...

Oh, "do a twirl" is certainly right up there with all the other disgusting sexist things that are said (in this case, by on-court hosts--probably should do a separate post about THEM!). I haven't heard "on her racket," so it's good to know about it. Of course, I don't watch a wide variety of sports anymore.

My all-time most rage-worthy moment of on-court hosting was when Murphy Jensen wouldn't let a little girl take a run around the court because "girls don't run--they curtsy." Even worse was that he didn't get booed by the crowd.