The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Lindsay Gibbs, February 19, 2019

Martina Navratilova's transphobia--Reem Abulleil interview--must-click women's tennis links

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Martina Navratilova’s transphobia

It’s been another huge week in the women’s tennis world. In Doha, the fantastic Elise Mertens won the biggest title of her career, with Elise Mertens beating KiKi Bertens, Angelique Kerber, and Simona Halep in succession to win the biggest title in her career last week in Doha.

The 23-year-old Belgian is now No. 16 in the world, and you should read her interview with David Kane of WTA Insider to read more about her breakthrough.

But, with all respect to Mertens, this week I feel like there are more pressing issues I must address: Namely, the devastatingly destructive comments by tennis legend Martina Navratilova, who wrote an op-ed in the Sunday Times this week, “The rules on trans athletes reward cheats and punish the innocent.”

“To put the argument at its most basic: a man can decide to be female, take hormones if required by whatever sporting organisation is concerned, win everything in sight and perhaps earn a small fortune, and then reverse his decision and go back to making babies if he so desires,” she writes. “It’s insane and it’s cheating. I am happy to address a transgender woman in whatever form she prefers, but I would not be happy to compete against her. It would not be fair.”

I’m going to have more on Navratilova’s comments in ThinkProgress in the coming days, so I’ll spare you an in-depth takedown for now (though I will link in next week’s newsletter, for the interested). But it’s important to call these comments what they are: ignorant, reductive, and down-right transphobic. The scenario she is presenting, about men pretending to women just so they can win a fortune in women’s sports, is not reality; what is reality, is the bullying, exclusion, and violence that trans people face on a day in, day out basis.

Navratilova has long been a champion for human rights, particularly for the gay and lesbian community, and my hope is that she will listen and learn the error of her ways. But, she doesn’t get a pass for her discriminatory comments just because of her past activism.

This week in tennis

The Chan sisters won the Doha doubles title.

Tennis journalist Reem Abulleil (who I have an interview with below) has been absolutely killing it in Dubai this week. Here’s her exclusive interview with Naomi Osaka on her split from coach Sascha Bajin.

Osaka lost her first match as world No. 1, falling 6-3, 6-3 to Kristina Mladenovic in Dubai.

Former world No. 5 Eugenie Bouchard believes she’s on the right track. She lost a tight second-round match to Simona Halep, 7-6(4), 6-4.

Ons Jabeur, the top-ranked Tunisian tennis player, says she wants to be the “Naomi Osaka of Africa.” She had a big win in the first round of Dubai, taking out No. 25 Donna Vekic, but had to retire in her second-round match against Elina Svitolina.

I’m obsessed with this quote from Jabeur, talking about her friendship with Osaka: “When I see someone shy, I don’t leave them alone, that’s me.”

Petra Kvitova opened up to WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen about how hard it was to move on from her loss in the Australian Open final.

Also via WTA Insider: Halep has ended her coaching trial with Thierry Van Cleemput after just one week.

An absolute must-listen No Challenges Remaining podcast on the Top 10 most important women in tennis history.

Maria Sharapova is still dealing with a shoulder injury, and has pulled out of Indian Wells.

The Hungarian Ladies Open is also taking place this week led by No. 1 seed Alison Van Uytvanck.

Tweet of the week

Five at IX: Reem Abulleil

Reem Abulleil is an Egyptian tennis journalist for Sport 360 in Dubai. She’s been traveling the tennis world for the past seven and a half years, and is currently the only Arab journalist who covers the sport full time. In the middle of the busiest time in her calendar, Abulleil was nice enough to answer a few questions for The IX. Be sure to follow her on twitter.

LINDSAY: The WTA events in Dubai and Doha have been around since 2001. What growth have you seen in those tournaments, and how popular and/or significant has women’s tennis become in the area?

REEM: They’ve definitely grown. I remember when they finally added women’s events in Dubai and Doha, actually the Dubai men’s tournament started in 1993. It took them eight years before they added a women’s event. And I remember, I know Dubai was the very first live tennis event I ever attended and I remember watching Martina Hingis here and Kournakova and Selima Sfar, the Tunisian player. For me, actually watching an Arab play this tournament was amazing for me when I was younger.

The Dubai calendar is busy with so many events, not just sports but entertainment in general, all these events are always competing with each other in terms of bringing in crowds. And the Dubai tennis event is actually one of the best-attended events in the Dubai sports calendar, which I love, because it really has that consistency. I’ve seen growth, I’ve seen attention in general but would I say that women’s tennis has become huge in the region because of these tournaments? I wouldn’t necessarily say that because I do feel the men’s tournaments usually get a better crowd, especially when Roger Federer is in town.

I think one of the things that makes the set-up in Dubai so successful is the women’s and men’s weeks are back-to-back, so the organizers and fans do not see the WTA and ATP events as separate. It’s basically a two-week block of tennis, which I think helped also draw in a lot of crowds and attention here.

LINDSAY: Ons Jabeur continues to break barriers for Arab women on the WTA Tour — last year, she became the first Arab woman to make it to a WTA final, and now she’s at a career-high ranking of No. 56. Why do you think things are clicking for her now?

REEM: I think things are finally clicking for Ons for multiple reasons, I think she had to go through these ups and downs after she experienced very early success as a teenager, winning Roland Garros Juniors in 2011. She did something so unprecedented for any woman in the region when she did that, and it came with a lot of responsibility, a lot of attention, that basically she had no idea how to progress from there, no idea what to do after that.

It took her a long time to find the right people to put in place around her. And now, the reason things are clicking is she has that team. She’s coached by Bertrand Perret, who used to be Peng Shuai’s coach. Her fitness coach is her husband, Karim Kamoun, who travels with her now, which really helps, because she got married young, but she wasn’t always able to travel with her husband, because he worked elsewhere. Now that he’s traveling with her she has that stability as well. And with Ons especially, Ons loves to have fun. Ons always has a smile on her face. She likes to joke around, and I definitely see that with her coach and fitness coach.

I also think that with the kind of game she has, with all of the flair and the drop shots and the slices, this is a kind of game that requires some time to be able to build a strong game around it. When you’re young and you’re hitting drop shots and that kind of stuff, great, big deal, but once you’re on the women’s tour you really need to know how to use that game in the right way. I think now she has that right balance between hitting with power and also finding these crafty shots.

LINDSAY: How much higher can Ons climb?

REEM: To be honest, with what we’ve seen from her last year in Moscow, when she made the final, Ons is completely capable of putting together strong back-to-back wins on any given week. She has the game to trouble so many players, and she’s only 24. So to be honest, I don’t put a limit on where she can be. Because we’ve seen all these different players break through in different ways, and I think at 24 when she’s starting to find her game, I see Ons as a Top 20 player, and I know she sees herself as even higher, because she is very ambitious. And I think for her, she understands that maybe her road to success was slower than others, but she also can see someone like Malek Jaziri, her compatriot, who is 35 years old and at a career-high ranking on the verge of the top 40, so she knows there is no timeline to this. I personally think she can crack the top 20.

LINDSAY. This week, you were the first person to talk with Naomi Osaka about her split with Sascha Bajin. What do you think is next for Osaka?

REEM: I think with Naomi, every time we thought over the past year that something can crack Naomi, she has managed to overcome it in the most profound way, whether it’s a slump mid-match, or the pressure that will come with a big breakthrough. I’m still amazed that she’s won back-to-back Slams. So I think that the split with her coach, while it can effect a lot of players, I think with Naomi, so far she’s shown that nothing fazes her.

I think Naomi is super ambitious and I think that she just wants to work harder. She says she doesn’t really celebrate much, her achievements, she says she moves on fairly quickly. So I think she already has her eyes on winning Dubai, winning Indian Wells, going ahead and trying to win more. I’m not sure who she would have in mind as her next coach. I think she’s quite an interesting personality, and whoever works with her has to be someone whoever works with her has to be someone who can bring a lot of positivity to her, she says that’s her priority.

But I’m not worried about Naomi. I think this girl is way tougher than anyone gives her credit for. And she’s just such a tough cookie.

LINDSAY: You get to spend more time than the average person actually watching women’s tennis in person. Who is a top-50 player that you think could be positioned for an 2017 Ostapenko-like — or even a 2018 Osaka-like — breakthrough?

REEM: I think if you look at the current Top 50, the obvious answer to your question would be Aryna Sabalenka or Ash Barty. Those two are players who, they can catch fire in different ways, obviously with completely different games. Sabalenka, when she’s in form, we’ve seen what she can do. We’ve seen her already with a Premiere 5 in Wuhan, she started the year by winning a title, she hasn’t defeated a top 50 player yet this season but it’s still so early, it’s only February, so I think Sabalenka is positioned that way and can make a big breakthrough this year. Ash Barty, I’m very curious to see what she can do at Wimbledon. She had a great Aussie summer, making final in Sydney, quarters in Melbourne, losing to [Petra] Kvirova in both, so these are the two I’d have my eyes on.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Lindsay Gibbs, @Linzsports ThinkProgress
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal High Post Hoops
Thursdays: Golf
By Carly Grenfell, @Carlygren
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by The IX Team