The Madrid Open is at the centre of a fresh sexism row, just days after the event was criticised for dressing 'ball girls' in "feminising" outfits.
On Sunday, the players who contested the women's doubles final – including Coco Gauff and former world No1 Victoria Azarenka – were denied the chance to address the crowd during the presentation ceremony.
While the tournament declined to comment on Monday, the censorship is thought to be connected to Iga Swiatek's runner-up speech on Saturday. After losing to Aryna Sabalenka, the current world No1 complained about the late-night scheduling of her semi-final.
Sunday's silencing of the doubles players drew an understated message from Gauff – who tweeted: "Wasn't given the chance to speak after the final today" – and a more pointed one from Azarenka, who said: "Hard to explain to Leo [her six-year-old son] that mommy isn't able to say hello to him at the trophy ceremony".
Last year's champion, Ons Jabeur, described the events as "sad and unacceptable" while the Australian commentator and former doubles champion Rennae Stubbs said the Madrid Open's decision was "a disgrace".
— Rennae Stubbs 🟦👍🏼 (@rennaestubbs) May 7, 2023
Bizarrely, Azarenka had already had a social-media run-in with tournament director Feliciano Lopez about birthday cakes.
Last Friday happened to be the birthday of both eventual singles champions – 20-year-old Carlos Alcaraz and 25-year-old Sabalenka. When the two players received cakes from the tournament, Azarenka – who is the highest-profile member of the Women’s Tennis Association player council – pointed out that Alcaraz's cake was at least four times bigger and considerably grander. It was also presented to him on Campo Manolo Santana – the main stadium at Madrid's Caja Magica complex – whereas Sabalenka received hers backstage.
In response to Azarenka's tweet pointing out the discrepancy, Lopez replied: "I'm surprised by this reaction after this gesture! 1. Carlos had just won his match to reach the final 2. He was playing on centre court 3. The tournament is played in Spain, even though it is an international event."
Lopez – who is a former French Open doubles champion – was later captured looking daggers at Swiatek when she told fans during Saturday's presentation that "It's not fun to play at 1am" (a reference to the late finish of her semi-final win over Veronika Kudermetova).
While the absence of speeches at Sunday's women's doubles presentation remains officially unexplained, it seems likely that the Madrid Open was trying to prevent Azarenka – who is reliably outspoken – from levelling any further criticism at the organisers.
If so, the move may have backfired by drawing even greater attention to the controversies surrounding the event.
To return to the ball girls, specially-dressed all-female ball crews were assigned to matches on Campo Manolo Santana even as more traditionally attired ball girls and boys worked the outside courts. Yet those chosen for the weekend’s finals dressed in less revealing outfits than the crop tops and pleated skirts they had worn earlier in the fortnight.
The tournament changed its policy at the weekend after Pilar Calvino, a spokesperson for the Spanish Association for Women in Professional Sport, complained about the dress code.
"It's a way of feminising girls with respect to boys who don't dress in the same way," Calvino told online newspaper Público. "Ultimately, it's a form of sexist violence that is so widespread that people don't even notice it."
This whole subject represented a reprisal of a 2004 row surrounding the use of models as ball girls at the Madrid Open. At the time, Andre Agassi admitted that "it was difficult, to say the least, to concentrate on the ball".
Soledad Murillo, Spain's secretary of state for equality, said that the ball-girls policy had "fomented clear discrimination towards women who appear as simple objects of decoration and amusement".
The criticism prompted the Madrid Open – which was then owned by the Romanian billionaire Ion Tiriac – to go for a lower-profile approach thereafter, while also trying to level the playing field by hiring male models to work on women's matches in 2006 and 2007. This year, it seems some of the same spirit returned.
The Mutua Madrid Open is one of seven mandatory 1000 tournaments which constitute the highest category on the WTA Tour. It pays equal prize money to men and women, but only because the WTA contributes a hefty sum to equalise the fees. The super-agency IMG completed its purchase of the event last year for a nine-figure sum.