Why are there no openly gay players in elite men's tennis?

Monday, 3 July 2023 13:25 GMT

Tennis - Wimbledon - All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, London, Britain - July 3, 2023 General view of court 10 during the first round match between Spain's Cristina Bucsa and Russia's Kamilla Rakhimova REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

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No openly gay or bisexual men are playing at Wimbledon, while women's tennis includes numerous LGBTQ+ players
  • No openly gay players in the men's elite game
  • Women's tour has a number of openly lesbian players
  • Former player says homophobia common in mid-2000s

By Seb Starcevic and Hugo Greenhalgh

LONDON/MELBOURNE, July 3 (Openly) - Play began at Wimbledon on July 3 with some noticeable absences, including two-time champion Rafael Nadal and Croatian former finalist Marin Cilic, who were both recovering from surgery.

But Nadal and Cilic were not the only ones sitting out the men's draw in 2023, as seven-time Wimbledon winner Novak Djokovic attempts to draw level with Australian tennis legend Margaret Court's 24 Grand Slams.

There are no openly gay or bisexual male players competing at Wimbledon this year, highlighting a dearth of LGBTQ+ players in top-level men's tennis that contrasts with their growing visibility in other major sports.

Their absence is also at odds with the women's game, where a string of major stars have come out as lesbian over the years - notably former world number ones, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Amelie Mauresmo.

An Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Tour survey of players in 2022 found that 75% had reported having heard other players use homophobic slurs, leading the tour to partner with You Can Play, an organisation committed to furthering LGBTQ+ inclusion in sports.

The survey also indicated a "strong fear of rejection, isolation from others on tour, and loneliness" as being likely barriers to LGBTQ+ players' publicly disclosing their sexuality.

It also found overwhelming support for the ATP taking action to combat homophobia.

Here is a timeline of LGBTQ+ players' participation in professional tennis:

- 1930s: Despite his popularity and achievements on the court, including winning the French Open twice, German tennis champion Gottfried von Cramm fell foul of the Nazi regime because of his sexuality.

- After his 1938 arrest for being in a same-sex relationship with a Jewish actor, von Cramm – who was also reportedly critical of the Nazis – spent six months in jail.

He was freed after campaigning by his friend and rival, U.S. world No. 1 Don Budge, but the criminal conviction meant he was unable to obtain a visa to participate in the U.S. Open in 1939.

- 1970s: After being outed as transgender, American professional women's tennis player Renee Richards was asked to verify her sex through a chromosome test. When she refused, she was barred from competing in the 1976 U.S. Open.

She sued the United States Tennis Association for the right to compete, challenging the legitimacy of the test.

In August 1977, the New York State Supreme Court ruled in her favour, saying it was "grossly unfair, discriminatory and inequitable, and violative of her rights".

Two weeks later, Richards became the first trans player to compete in the U.S. Open.

Although she was knocked out of the singles in the first round, she later coached Martina Navratilova to two Wimbledon wins.

- 1980s: In quick succession, two of the biggest stars in women's tennis came out as lesbian – American Billie Jean King and Czech-born Martina Navratilova.

King, the top female player in the world from 1966 to 1968 and founder of the Women's Tennis Association, was outed by her personal assistant and lover in April 1981.

Although her lawyers initially denied a relationship between the two women, King called a press conference and confirmed it.

A few months later, Navratilova, the women's world No. 1 in 1978 and 1979, was outed as bisexual in a front-page news story.

Navratilova – who today identifies as a lesbian – had asked journalists not to report on her sexuality, worried that coming out would jeopardise her application for U.S. citizenship or her relationship with corporate sponsors.

Both King and Navratilova lost millions of dollars in endorsements after being outed but were supported by colleagues and fans.

- 1990s: At just 19, French player Amelie Mauresmo came out as a lesbian while competing at the 1999 Australian Open, the first player to do so at the beginning of their career.

While Mauresmo lost in the final to Switzerland's Martina Hingis, she won Wimbledon and the Australian Open in 2006 and became world No. 1 for 10 months.

- 2017 - Brian Vahaly, an American former professional tennis player, came out as gay, 10 years after retiring - one of few male players to have done so.

The former world No. 64 told Openly in 2022 that gay players might be discouraged from being open about their sexuality due to the possible impact on "sponsors, fans, family and friendships".

"It was impossible to go a week" without hearing homophobic language when he played in the ATP Tour, he said.

"When I was competing in the mid-2000s, I would not describe tennis as a very welcoming environment for gay players."

2019: Belgians Alison Van Uytvanck and Greet Minnen made history when they teamed up at Wimbledon in 2019, becoming the first same-sex couple to compete in a doubles match.

Van Uytvanck and Minnen got engaged in December 2020 but announced their break-up on social media in October 2021.

- 2021: The U.S. Open Tennis Championships hosted its first Open Pride Day, backed by King and Navratilova. Players wore rainbow wristbands to show their support for LGBTQ+ inclusion.

- 2022: Daria Kasatkina, Russia's highest-ranked female tennis player, came out as gay in a video interview. Kasatkina, who was not living in Russia, also posted pictures on Instagram with her girlfriend, figure skater Natalia Zabiiako.

This article was updated on July 3, 2023 to include the latest Wimbledon tournament.

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(Reporting by Seb Starcevic @SebStarcevic; editing by Katy Migiro and Hugo Greenhalgh. Please credit Openly, the LGBTQ+ news website from the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit https://www.openlynews.com)

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