The WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) has banned Russian tennis chief Shamil Tarpischev for one year as a punishment for his comments that the Williams Sisters were “brothers” and they were scary to look at. Stacey Allaster, the WTA CEO, also issued Tarpischev a $25,000 fine. Allaster said the comments were “insulting, demeaning and have absolutely no place in our sport.”
The comments came on a Russian TV show on which Tarpischev appeared with former WTA star and countrywoman Elena Dementieva. Tarpischev joked with Dementieva and the host of Evening Urgant, a late night talk show, that the Sisters were difficult to beat but they were not as “elegant” and “beautiful” as the Russian athletes. Instead, he said, when he was up close to them he found them “so physically powerful” and asked Demetieva if she had been “scared” to compete with them. The Russian ignored the comments.
Serena Williams denounced the comments as bullying, racist and sexist. The WTA’s No. 1 ranked player was in full support of the WTA’s actions and said the association had done a “great job” responding to the remarks.
When asked about his comments, Tarpischev said the show was a “humorous” one and that he had only been joking. As his comments caused a media stir, the Russian tennis chief made a more formal response to the wide-spread criticism of his words. Tarpischev wrote a letter saying he was apologizing on behalf of himself and the Russian tennis federation for his “insensitive comments regarding Serena and Venus Williams last week.”
Tarpischev said he had originally meant to make a “small joke” but realised in hindsight his comments were “inappropriate.” The Russian tennis chief went on to say he admired the sisters and acknowledged they were two of the greatest tennis players to ever play the game. He also highlighted his own support of women’s tennis over the years. That support was recognised by Russian tennis player Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova who after winning the Kremlin Cup in Moscow today thanked Tarpischev in her winner’s speech. The tennis chief was absent from the final.
Elena Dementieva was a famous beneficiery of Tarpischev’s support. The two time slam finalist and 2007 Kremlin Cup winner stayed silent after he made his comments on the Evening Urgant show. The former WTA world No. 3 has been involved in her own controversy with the Williams sisters after making comments at the 2001 Indian Wells tournament that the Williams sisters fixed their matches. After losing her quarter-final match to Venus Williams, Dementieva was asked who she thought would win the semi-final clash between the sisters. The Russian replied Richard Williams would decide.
Dementieva, who beat Serena Williams 5 out of 12 times, including in the 2007 Kremlin Cup final, but went 2-9 to Venus Williams, has yet to comment on Tarpischev’s comments, however Maria Sharapova has said it was “inappropriate” especially as Tarpischev is not just the leader of women’s tennis in Russia but is also a member of the Olympic committee.
Tarpischev said the ban was something he did not understand. How he will interpret the WTA’s next move which is to have him removed as the chairman of the Kremlin Cup remains to be seen.
Commentary by Christian Deverille