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The US Open Accused Of Double Standards For Tennis Players

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Staying in New York now, let's turn to tennis. The U.S. Open is being held in Queens. It's been hot all week in New York. And earlier, the high temperatures brought out some drama and highlighted some of the differences between the men's game and the women's game, or rather, how people respond to each. We wanted to talk about that, so we called Courtney Nguyen. She's senior writer for WTA Insider. She's a reporter with the Women's Tennis Association, which means she closely follows the professional season. Courtney Nguyen, thanks so much for joining us once again.

COURTNEY NGUYEN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So let's start with last night's third round match between Venus and Serena Williams, the Williams sisters - their 30th match against each other. It's one of the highlights of the U.S. Open so far. What was the scene like there?

NGUYEN: The scene was a great one. I mean, the hype for this match, I as any of their matches, is always, you know, bigger than the event itself. It's bigger than tennis because Serena and Venus are bigger than the sport. And so when they come up together, there's just so many kind of heart-tugging storylines there. I mean, so many of us who have sisters or siblings are sitting there thinking, how could I do this? How could I play my sibling on that court? It's been 20 years since they faced off for the first time.

So the hype and the energy is palpable. Then the match starts, and it gets a little awkward. You know, you feel a little bit of tension on the court obviously between the two of them. They're much quieter, competing more quietly against each other, respectfully against each other. And really, fans kind of don't really know how to cheer, you know, because you kind of root for them as a collective whole. But Venus Williams was the underdog last night, and she was the one that was getting the big roars from the crowd as people were trying to get her going.

MARTIN: OK. But speaking of Serena, there's been a lot of attention on her clothing during the U.S. Open - one-sleeved tutus that are fashion statements in their own right. Now she's always brought something interesting to what she wears, but this has been seen as a clap back at the French Open's new dress code. And I wanted to ask you, you know, what's the back story there? And why is there such a focus on what these athletes are wearing?

NGUYEN: Sure. I mean, fashion just from the get-go has always been a foundation of tennis. It's always been a part of it. Serena has always pushed the boundaries. It kind of has bubbled up again because the French Federation president, Bernard Giudicelli, didn't really appreciate, I guess is the way to say it, the cat suit that Serena wore. It was a full-length cat suit at the French Open back in May. And right before the U.S. Open, he gave an interview saying that sort of attire will not be allowed going forward at the French Open and that it was, you know, a lack of respect to the game. Now, that particular quote is really the one that I think caused a lot of people to kind of roll their eyes a little bit and say, what are you talking about? The cat suit brought attention to the game. It brought attention to the French Open, especially here in the States.

And for Serena, she says she had to wear that suit because of health concerns. She's dealt with life-threatening blood clots throughout her career, especially after giving birth to her daughter. So it's just in a lot of ways a tough look for the FFT to kind of take that that stance right now with, you know, the greatest athlete of all time. And then obviously, that goes into the U.S. Open. And obviously, these dresses, her tutu, her one-sleeve tutu, that design was in the works for months. But yeah, it definitely does seem kind of thematically as like, I'm going to wear what I want.

MARTIN: And earlier in the week, the French player Alize Cornet got a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct when she changed her shirt on the court which left her momentarily wearing only a sports bra. The U.S. Open later took back the penalty, apologized and clarified the policy. And this has also gotten a lot of attention. Courtney, tell us why.

NGUYEN: It's gotten a lot of attention because if you watch tennis, the men change their shirts on court all the time. Rafael Nadal, in fact, part of his post-match routine is to stand there shirtless for a little bit before he puts on a clean shirt after he wins matches. So changing your shirt is a standard thing and especially in the heat here in New York. It's - they were absolutely drenched within two minutes of playing matches this week.

Alize Cornet had just come out of a heat break - a 10 minute off-court break - and didn't realize she had put her shirt on backwards. So she took it off really quickly and turned it around and got the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. And that obviously raises concerns about, you know, is there a double standard here? Now, to be clear, this is the rule that only exists at the slams. On tour, they can do that, and they don't get penalties. So this is a specific thing at the majors. And I give a lot of credit to the USTA for being so quick about realizing that we shouldn't be issuing women unsportsmanlike conduct penalties for doing what the men do. And they immediately took it back, and they changed the rule.

MARTIN: So I'm just wondering where this is going to go from here. We'll note that some of the giants in the game like Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King have been very outspoken about what they see as just inappropriate scrutiny of women's attire. We are in a moment obviously when people are scrutinizing the conduct of people toward women in general. And I'm just wondering if you think - where you think this is going.

NGUYEN: Yeah. I mean, I think that the conversation is a very, very good one to have. I mean, in a lot of ways, especially within this sport, I think a lot of times we just kind of go through the motions year after year, week after week within tennis. And, you know, a lot of times rules that exist on the books, they just exist on the books because they've never been questioned. And in actual practical application, a lot of times certain rules aren't enforced regularly. So the players - things kind of evolve on the court with respect to standards and conduct along with the times. They're just not necessarily codified on a regular basis.

But I think that it's a conversation that will carry forward. I think it's one that the players will carry forward themselves because speaking to a bunch of them after the Cornet incident in particular, I think a lot of them were just absolutely livid that Cornet got a code violation for doing what they think is not that big of a deal - just because one person is scandalized or has some sort of Victorian notion of how they look at women's bodies doesn't mean that these women should be subjected to that.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, looking ahead to the rest of the tournament, what are you going to be looking for in the upcoming matches?

NGUYEN: Well, I'm definitely looking forward to a potential quarterfinal between Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens as - I guess the semifinal, sorry, not the quarterfinals. That's going to be a very big match. Sloane, obviously the defending champion at the U.S. Open. And Serena has looked phenomenal, I think, through the first week at the U.S. Open. So that would be a huge blockbuster match. And so that's - I'm really looking at Serena at this point. I just think that she has really upped her level from what we saw when she made the final at the French Open. And she's got through a tough draw, and it'll just keep getting tougher. But wow, she could go and get number 24 here.

MARTIN: That's Courtney Nguyen, senior writer for WTA Insider. Courtney, thanks so much.

NGUYEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.