They were words that took tennis back to the dark ages, the tournament director of one of the sport’s most prestigious events saying that women professionals should get “down” on their “knees” every night to thank some of their male contemporaries.
Except Raymond Moore’s comments didn’t come in the distant past; instead the South African made the remarks Sunday on the eve of the singles finals at the BNP Paribas Open, better known simply as Indian Wells.
“In my next life when I come back I want to be someone in the WTA, because they ride on the coattails of the men,” he told reporters, referring to the organization that runs the women’s game. “They don’t make any decisions and they are lucky.
“They are very, very lucky. If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport. They really have.”
Moore later apologized but the damage had been done and drew a swift riposte from the leading player of the women’s game.
Serena Williams took aim at Moore after she fell 6-4 6-4 to Victoria Azarenka in the women’s final, which turned out to be more of a spectacle than Novak Djokovic’s 6-2 6-0 thrashing of Milos Raonic in the California desert.
“I don’t think any woman should be down on their knees thanking anybody like that,” Williams told reporters.
“I think Venus, myself, a number of players — if I could tell you every day how many people say they don’t watch tennis unless they’re watching myself or my sister — I couldn’t even bring up that number,” added the 21-time grand slam winner, referring to her older sibling, who has claimed seven majors.
“So I don’t think that is a very accurate statement. I think there are a lot of women out there who are very exciting to watch. I think there are a lot of men out there who are exciting to watch. I think it definitely goes both ways.”
In backing up her statements, Williams pointed to last year’s U.S. Open, when the women’s final sold out before the men’s for the first time. Williams was chasing a calendar-year grand slam, which hadn’t been accomplished since 1988.
“I’m sorry, did Roger play in that final?” Williams, ousted by Roberta Vinci in the semifinals, asked. “Or Rafa, or any man, play in that final that was sold out before the men’s final? I think not.”
Tennis great Billie Jean King, who fought tirelessly for equality in sports, tweeted her disapproval with the 69-year-old Moore.
“Disappointed in Raymond Moore comments,” the 12-time grand slam champion said. “He is wrong on so many levels. Every player, especially the top players, contribute to our success.”
CNN.com put in an interview request with Indian Wells tournament owner Larry Ellison — listed by Forbes as one of the 10 richest people in the world — but didn’t immediately hear back.
As the reaction intensified, WTA CEO Steve Simon — Indian Wells’ tournament director before Moore — called Moore’s words “extremely disappointing and alarming.”
“As the tournament director of one of the most preeminent events in professional tennis the comments made today by Raymond Moore were extremely disappointing and alarming,” he said in a statement.
“The WTA stands on its own and was founded on the principles of equality and empowerment. I am proud of all those strong athletes on the WTA who put in hard work and sacrifice every single day.
“Tennis as a whole is enriched by the contributions and accomplishments of every single player both female and male.”
The ATP Mens Tour also weighed in, denouncing Moore’s remarks as “disparaging” and “in poor taste.”
“Ray Moore’s comments towards women’s tennis were disparaging and made in poor taste, as Ray has subsequently acknowledged,” the ATP statement read.
“The ATP fully supports equality across society, while at the same time acknowledging that we operate in the sports and entertainment business.
“The ATP seeks to achieve fair compensation for its players by setting minimum prize money levels for ATP events in accordance with the revenues that are generated from men’s professional tennis. The ATP also respects the right of tournaments to make their own decisions relating to prize money for women’s tennis, which is run as a separate Tour.”
The furore is just the latest example of the sport of tennis shooting itself in the foot during 2016.
First a match fixing scandal engulfed the Australian Open. Then Maria Sharapova admitted to failing a drug test. And now Moore’s stinging views.
Djokovic, meanwhile, reopened the debate about equal prize money when he was asked about Moore’s comments.
“I think that our men’s tennis world, ATP world, should fight for more because the stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men’s tennis matches,” the world No. 1 said. “I think that’s one of the reasons why maybe we should get awarded more.”
“Women should fight for what they think they deserve and we should fight for what we think we deserve. I think as long as it’s like that and there is data and stats available and information, upon who attracts more attention, spectators, who sells more tickets and stuff like that, in relation to that it has to be fairly distributed.”
Katrina Adams, president of the United States Tennis Association (USTA) said Monday that player equality is one of the “bedrock principles” of American tennis.
“The USTA and the U.S. Open hold player equality as one of our bedrock principles. As the first Grand Slam to award equal prize money, we have endeavored to lead the way for gender equality in sports,” Adams said in a statement.
“We appreciate the hard work and incredible skill demonstrated by all those at the professional level, and the USTA hopes these tremendous athletes help to inspire the next generation of boys and girls players in this country.
“There is no place in this sport for antiquated, sexist or uninformed ideologies, and the comments made yesterday in no way reflect the beliefs of the vast majority of those in the tennis world.”
More responses are sure to pour in this week on the eve of the Miami Open, the second of tennis’ crown jewels in March.
Tennis officials would be forgiven for also thinking: What’s next?