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It’s Time To Change The Way We Talk About Female Tennis Players

Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images.
During the Olympics last month, it seemed everyone had an opinion when it came to female athletes — and, no, not regarding their standout performances. Instead, newscasters debated whether or not women should wear makeup in competitions, while Twitter erupted with opinions on how Gabby Douglas should style her hair. When we should have been celebrating athletics, we were more concerned about aesthetics. And it’s disappointing.

Female tennis players certainly understand this pressure. It’s an intense sport — one that requires a tremendous amount of strength and agility — and yet many people still expect the top athletes to fill out their skirts a certain way. “We’re athletes and we have to have endurance on a high level, day after day,” says Serbian tennis player and 2008 French Open champion Ana Ivanovic. “Of course, we have to be strong, but then on the other side [the media] is creating pressures that we should look like models, which is impossible. You can’t play tennis like that, because you have to have energy for a two- to three-hour match.”
We sat down with Ivanovic before the U.S. Open to learn more about the pressures she faces, why she chooses not to wear makeup during matches (but doesn’t judge athletes who do), and how she hopes to end sexism in tennis for good. That conversation, ahead.

People have a lot of thoughts about female athletes wearing makeup during competitions. What’s your take?
“There is much more spotlight, especially on the girls, not only on how they perform but also on how they look. That creates a certain pressure and you can get lost in that. It’s important to keep your identity and to know who you are. I don’t wear makeup on the court, just sun cream… I want to be comfortable and don’t want to think about my mascara running or my foundation. But it’s very individual, and different sports have different needs. I think it’s very personal. Athletes know what feels the most comfortable for them. ”
Because some women do feel better wearing makeup to compete.
“Exactly. I always feel you can’t judge someone, if that makes them feel good. But they should do that if that makes them feel good, not because of others.”

Have you ever felt pressure about the way you look?
“The only thing is being fit. When it comes to fitness, everyone has a different idea of what’s right and what’s wrong. In that sense, you always feel pressure. You’re underweight, you’re overweight, you’re fit, you’re not fit. This kind of thing creates pressure for me individually. Other than that — the outfits, the makeup — it doesn’t bother me so much.”

I know you don’t wear makeup on the court — but let’s talk about your hair. What’s with the signature half-braid?
“For me, it’s because my hair is so long and heavy. When I hit, it comes across my face. When I have it braided, it keeps it more in its place. Sometimes, if I braid it all the way to the end, it swings more.”

How do you keep it healthy?
“That’s one thing I struggle with, because our hair is constantly in ponytails, and because my hair is heavy, I have to have it pulled tightly — and then it breaks, and the ends get dry from playing in extreme weather. So I use the Moroccanoil mask and the serum. I put it in when my hair’s towel-dried and half wet. And then when it’s dry, I put a bit more through the ends.”

How do you treat yourself after the U.S. Open?
“That’s a really interesting question, because you feel you need that and recovery, but the problem is that we don’t have much time. Our schedule is very intense. We basically have two weeks off in November. After the U.S. Open, we have only a week before Asia starts, and it’s a completely different continent.”
Do you get a massage or do any treatments?
“I do massages all the time, because you have to keep your body in the best possible physical shape. So I have a therapist that travels with me and almost every day I get a massage. On some days with heavy training or a hard competition, we do ice baths.”
What’s in your tennis bag — besides your racket and balls?
“Definitely Shiseido sun cream, hair spray, and a lip gloss. [Ed. note: Ivanovich is an ambassador for the Shiseido brand.] I hate it when my lips are dry, and sometimes you play in the desert and they get really dry. I like Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Cream. Then for hair, I use Tresemme hairspray because I have flyaways, and it gets windy, and it gets so annoying when they tickle your face.”

Anything else?
“I like this Quick Fix Mist by Shiseido. It’s great for while you’re playing so you stay refreshed. It wakes up your skin if it gets dehydrated or dry.”
What’s one thing you wish more people knew about tennis?
“I think it’s much less glamorous than some people think. It’s a lot of hard work, and people do not see how much we work off court as well. They just see us perform and travel and [they] think it’s easy — and it’s not that easy. It takes a lot of commitment and sacrifice, as well.”

How can we move toward ending sexism in tennis?
“I think we have to remind ourselves that it’s a sport and it’s a competition, and why we started the game: because we love the game itself. At the end of the day, we are there for our passion and also to enjoy and to give fans something to cheer on. We need more rivalries. We need to go back to that. Because at the moment, it’s more about who’s wearing what, and I don’t think that’s the way to promote the sport.”