Tennis has an identity problem. If fans and aspiring players are looking for representation in LGBTQ+ role models in professional tennis, they will be hard-pressed to find one. In the top 100 players in the Women’s Tennis Association, or WTA, there are just a handful of singles players who are out, and there are a grand total of zero openly LGBTQ+ singles top-100 players on the men’s tour.
Why are LGBTQ+ athletes so underrepresented in tennis? The answer lies partly in the nature of tennis as a sport — how players make money and find themselves in the spotlight.
Director of undergraduate research at UC Santa Barbara Anita Stahl, whose dissertation explored gender, race and sexuality in women’s tennis, emphasizes the potential financial ramifications of coming out.
For tennis players, income is variable. Specifically, players could lose out on “appearance fees,” or financial incentives from tournament organizers for players to participate in tournaments that might be lower-level or geographically inconvenient.
“Higher level players get paid to show up at tournaments and play. So if a player’s out, a lot of tennis markets outside the U.S. might just not bother to pay tennis players to show up anymore,” Stahl said. “So even if their sponsorships or prize money income aren’t affected, it could still have potential political or financial liability to come out today.”
Things are further complicated by the nature of both the WTA and Association of Tennis Professionals, or ATP, tours, with each spanning across nearly 30 countries. The levels of acceptance for LGBTQ+ individuals in these countries can range from welcomed to less than tolerated; coming out could jeopardize athletes’ ability to be invited to certain tournaments.
It might come as a surprise, then, that the most high-profile tennis player who has come out in recent years is from one of the least accepting countries. This might seem unbelievable, especially given the sport’s long history, but the way the tours are set up can often prevent players from making their sexuality public.
The individual nature of tennis means that players are not part of a team, so they are unequivocally under the entire spotlight. That spotlight is certainly not for everyone, especially without the additional protection a team might provide.
“They also have to worry more about their income because they don’t have any kind of guarantee just for playing on the team — they don’t have those contracts, they have to make all their money,” Stahl said. “All those elements of loneliness and being alone in tennis have also added pressures to the thought of coming out and risking standing out in a bad way.”
The ATP itself has in fact highlighted the loneliness athletes experience on tour as a potential reason athletes might not feel comfortable coming out. A survey commissioned by the ATP asked athletes about LGBTQ+ attitudes on tour.
“The ATP’s survey and interview data 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 to others,” reads an ATP press release from last year. “A majority of players that participated in the survey … were supportive of ATP taking action to combat homophobia.”
Following the survey, last June, the ATP announced its “multi-year education partnership” with You Can Play, an organization committed to furthering LGBTQ+ inclusion in the sport. Efforts are being made on the part of tour organizers as well as athletes to make tennis a safer, more accepting space for players to come out publicly, rather than just behind the scenes.
While it is clear that athletes would generally be accepted by their fellow players, according to Stahl, the potential financial ramifications leave a lot for players to grapple with. Tennis trailblazers such as Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova have led the way for queer tennis players — but that was decades ago, with little progress since then. It is yet to be determined whether the next few years will bring a new era in acceptance in tennis, but the conversation is an important first step.