Former world No 1 Victoria Azarenka has said the treatment she and fellow female players received from the Madrid Open was “unacceptable” following another day of backlash in an ongoing sexism row.
After four days of criticism, on Thursday the Madrid Open finally issued an apology for last weekend’s PR disaster, which saw the finalists of the women’s doubles ushered offstage without the traditional speeches, and promised that "This will not ever happen again."
Speaking from Rome on Thursday, Azarenka - who won the doubles event in Madrid with partner Beatriz Haddad Maia and is a vocal member of the WTA player committee - acknowledged the apology but was still rankled by the episode.
“What happened in terms of doubles was completely unacceptable,” Azarenka told the Guardian after her second-round win over Sloane Stephens at the Italian Open. “There’s a lot of conversations, obviously, internally, of what happened and I want to see how that develops and what are the consequences of those decisions. So that’s why I don’t want to make too many comments. I believe to give people the opportunity to figure out what’s the best course of action. Do I think it’s unacceptable? It’s absolutely unacceptable.”
Her comments came as Australia's John Millman became the first male player to publicly condemn the tournament for failing to show the women “proper respect”.
“‘Working internally to review protocols’… It’s pretty simple,” the former top 50 player wrote on Twitter, referencing the Madrid Open statement. “Show some proper respect. It’s the very least they [the women players] deserve.”
The silencing of the doubles finalists was the final straw in a tournament that came under fire for sexism on numerous levels. There was the debate over the revealing outfits worn by the model ball girls, the discrepancy in the size of the respective birthday cakes presented to the men’s and women’s champions, and the scheduling that relegated world No 1 Iga Swiatek to the small hours of Saturday morning.
On Thursday morning, the tournament released a statement from its chief executive Gerard Tsobanian. "We sincerely apologise to all the players and fans who expect more of the Mutua Madrid Open tournament," Tsobanian said.
"Not giving our women’s doubles finalists the chance to address their fans at the end of the match was unacceptable," he added, "and we have apologised directly to Victoria [Azarenka], Beatriz [Haddad Maia], Coco [Gauff] and Jessica [Pegula]. We are working internally and with the WTA to review our protocols and are committed to improving our process moving forward. We made a mistake and this will not ever happen again."
Azarenka confirmed on Thursday that she had not yet received a personal apology from Tsobanian, and added that, if she had been granted the opportunity, she would not have used her victory speech to air grievances about the tournament.
“You’ve known me for how many years? A long time. Have you really seen me ever bring up issues in press? Like, complaining about something,” she said. “I’m asking that because it’s something that I want to be reflected of my character; that I prefer to deal with issues or comments or feedback in person and I’ve done it for my entire career. Sometimes it’s not heard, it doesn’t work.
“I want to give people the opportunity to make things right. But I do believe there should be questions answered why the decisions were made and by who it was made.”
The WTA had already indicated that they would be investigating events at the Caja Magica over the course of the tournament, which has been run by the super-agency IMG for the past two years. The Madrid Open ran over two weeks this year for the first time, but the expended tournament was overshadowed by controversy surrounding its gender politics.
Losing doubles finalist Pegula addressed the silencing issue on Tuesday: “Did I think we were not going to be able to speak? No. I’ve never heard of that, like, in my life. Even in a $10,000 Challenger final you would speak. I don’t know what century everyone was living in when they made that decision or how they actually had a conversation and decided: ‘Wow, this is a great decision we’re going to do and there’s going to be no backlash against this.’”