Is Tennis Truly a Gender Neutral Sport? How Grand Slams and Gender Stereotypes Affect the Language of Tennis Stars

Alyssa Ishimoto

Tennis is considered gender-neutral. In fact, if asked to name famous tennis players, most people would recall athletes of both genders, such as Roger Federer or Serena Williams. However, it is doubtful whether tennis is truly a “gender-neutral” sport that is immune to pervasive gender stereotypes and whether tennis athletes, in particular, succumb to these gender patterns.

The way people speak may reflect what they perceive their social status in a specific situation to be (Segalowitz, 2001). Entitlements to act certain ways based on perceived status are called affordances. If people perceive themselves as having a higher social status and higher knowledge, then they may express self-confidence without explicitly boasting about their own talents. In the context of tennis, gender stereotypes and the amount of career experience may affect athletes’ perceived affordances to speak confidently. To determine this, we will analyze linguistic features in the tennis interviews of major athletes after their first grand slam and after multiple grand slams. Keep on reading to find out if tennis is truly a gender-neutral sport, or if males use more confident language than females do, like the gender stereotypes would presume.

Introduction and Background

Sports are integral to many societies. They provide a chance for individuals of different backgrounds, genders, and ethnicities to come together and demonstrate their talent, passion, and national pride. However, despite the promotion of diversity, the sport’s culture has implicitly incorporated gender stereotypes. These stereotypes are reflected in the athletes’ behaviors, the media’s representation of the sport, and society’s view of the sport. Gender studies are important to help understand how athletes in different sports, even ones considered gender-neutral, are influenced by these gender stereotypes.

The concept of affordances has been a widely researched area in linguistics, psychology, and sociology. Norman (1999) argued that perceived affordances are the behaviors that people believe they can do based on society’s beliefs, which encourage some behaviors and discourage others. The way we speak also reflects our perceived affordances because we feel entitled to speak a certain way depending on our social status, expertise, and goals in the interaction (Segalowitz, 2001). However, those that choose to speak in a manner that is not acceptable for their status will face negative consequences (Aronin, 2014).

A previous study looked at how the media, which is influenced by gender stereotypes, frames women’s sports as inferior to men’s sports in basketball and tennis tournaments by framing women’s accomplishments as insignificant (Messner et al., 1993). Our study expands because we focus on how the athletes’ language, not the media, demonstrates gender stereotypes in tennis.

Our study compared the interviews of tennis stars after winning their first grand slam to their interviews after winning multiple grand slams. We found that male athletes displayed confident language in both interviews, while female athletes displayed confidence after winning multiple grand slams. The linguistic features that represented confidence displays were the assertiveness in players’ accounts of success and the frequency and purpose of hedges, which are short phrases or words that convey uncertainty. The gender differences in the tennis players’ displays of confidence portray that men may perceive themselves to have greater affordances to speak with confidence, due to gender stereotypes. These gender stereotypes suggest that men should act assertively and women should act modestly (Prentice & Carranza, 2002). Overall, our study may reflect the broader societal pattern of gender differences in affordances, due to professional expertise, social standing, and gender stereotypes.

Methods

This study looked at gender differences in linguistic features that reflected confidence in the interviews of tennis players after they won their first grand slam and after they won three or more grand slams. A player gets a grand slam title when they win one of the major tournaments, which are Wimbledon, the French Open, the U.S. Open, and the Australian Open. The following table shows information about the players we studied (Table 1). All interviews were found on YouTube.

This table shows the names of the players we studied, the country they represent, the year of their first grand slam interview, and the year of their multiple grand slam interview.

The first linguistic feature studied was the assertiveness in the accounts of success. We looked at the athletes’ use of direct language when describing how they won the grand slam or progressed in their career. Phrases that conveyed uncertainty and doubt were “I think” or “I was trying to.” Phrases, such as “I knew” or direct statements, conveyed confidence (Johnson & Maratsos, 1977).

 The second linguistic feature studied was the frequency and function of hedges. Robin Lakoff defined hedges as utterances that indicate uncertainty and are oftentimes used in women’s language (Lakoff, 1973). Common hedges in the interviews were:

I don’t know – little bit – kind of – I guess – maybe – probably

The frequency was the number of hedges per second of response time and was measured for each player.

The functions of hedges were also noted for each player. There were three functions:

Self-softening hedges were used by athletes when they shared opinions about themselves. They were to protect against the possible criticism towards the athlete’s self (Salager-Meyer, 1994). Other-softening hedges were used by athletes when they shared opinions about another player. They were to protect the other player from possible criticism (Myers, 1989). Low knowledge hedges were used by athletes when they did not have enough knowledge about a subject (Wang, 2016). Only the self-softening hedges lowered the display of confidence because they portrayed uncertainty in oneself.

Results and Analysis

The Accounts of Success after First Grand Slam

The tennis players differed in their assertive language in the accounts of success after their first grand slam. Two out of the three males used assertive language, including definitive statements. An example is found in Roger Federer’s 2004 interview. The interviewer asked Federer if he had ever expected his game to be where it is at currently. Federer’s response is:

Federer contrasts his younger self with his older self in his response. In lines 14-15, Federer uses the phrase “never thought” to clarify that his younger self displayed the lack of confidence in his tennis ability. On the other hand, in lines 15-16, Federer emphasizes that his current self-projects confidence in his tennis talent. The phrase “I always knew” indicates that Federer is very certain that he has talent.

On the other hand, the three female tennis players used nonassertive language in their accounts of success after their first grand slam. An example is found in Angelique Kerber’s 2016 interview. The interviewer asked Kerber what made her think, in the months leading up to the Australian Open, that she would win. Kerber’s response is:

In line 11, Kerber uses the phrase “I was trying…to,” which conveys that she was not certain about her statement regarding her optimism about winning major tournaments. This uncertain language displays a lack of confidence and shifts personal responsibility for the statement away from her to protect her from possible criticism.

The Accounts of Success after Multiple Grand Slams

After achieving three or more grand slams, both female tennis players and male tennis players used confident language in their accounts of success, although female players still used nonassertive language.

Frequency and Function of Hedges after First Grand Slam

This study also looked at the frequency and function of hedges in the interviews after the tennis players’ first grand slam. Both genders only used self-softening hedges, which decrease the confidence display. However, female tennis players used more hedges than male players did (Table 2).

Females used more hedges than males in the first grand slam interviews. There was a decrease in the use of self-softening hedges and an increase in the use of different types of hedges in the later interviews for both genders, compared to the earlier interviews.
KER = Angelique Kerber, SHA = Maria Sharapova, WIL = Serena Williams, DJO = Novak Djokovic, FED = Roger Federer, NAD = Rafael Nadal. Selfsoft = self-softening hedge, othersoft = other player softening hedge, low = low knowledge hedge

An example of the self-softening hedge is found in William’s 2002 interview. The interviewer asked Williams how she elevated her game in the last year. Williams responded:

In line 13, Williams uses the hedge little bit to lessen the possible backlash to her opinion that she should have been ranked better than nine or ten. The use of self-softening hedges displays unconfident language because the athlete is protecting himself or herself from possible criticism.

Frequency and Function of Hedges after Multiple Grand Slams

In the interviews after multiple grand slams, males and females used more types of hedges. As seen in Table 2, both genders used self-softening and other-softening hedges and only male players used low-knowledge hedges in their later career interviews. Although the total frequency of all hedges increased for male tennis players after multiple grand slams, they used low knowledge hedges and other-softening hedges, which do not affect confidence displays.

However, both genders used fewer self-softening hedges compared to their earlier interviews, as shown in Figure 1. Self-softening hedges lower the display of confidence so both genders displayed more confidence in their later career interviews.

The frequency of self-softening hedges decreased in the later interviews compared to the earlier career interviews for both genders. This type of hedge decreases an athlete’s confidence display.

 

Discussion

In the first grand slam interviews, males used more confident language in accounts of success and fewer self-softening hedges when compared to female players. On the other hand, females used nonassertive language in accounts of success and more self-softening hedges. The pattern of males using confident language and females using nonassertive language after their first grand slam may portray that females perceive themselves to have less capability to speak with confident language due to gender stereotypes. These stereotypes pressure women to act indecisively so female players may use nonassertive language to conform to the gender norms (Eagly & Mladinic, 1994). On the other hand, male players may speak confidently to conform to the gender stereotypes that men should act assertively.

One deviation from the common pattern that male professionals use confident language in their first grand slam interview was Rafael Nadal. Nadal displayed nonassertive language in his accounts of success and used more self-softening hedges than two of the female players in his 2006 interview. Although he broke the gender stereotype that men should act confidently, he did not face backlash. The media viewed Nadal’s language after his first grand slam as being gentleman-like and polite. This one case may represent the broader pattern that society comments upon those who do not conform to societal norms.

In the multiple grand slam interviews, all three males used confident language in accounts of success and used fewer self-softening hedges compared to their earlier career interviews. All three females used both confident and nonassertive language in accounts of success and used fewer self-softening hedges compared to their earlier career interview. Both genders’ use of confident language in accounts of success and their lower frequency of self-softening hedges in their later interviews may be due to their perceptions that the winning of multiple grand slams gives them more entitlement to speak confidently. The higher expertise in their profession gives both genders more affordances to act confidently (Sarsons & Xu, 2015). However, females still spoke with nonassertive language in their accounts of success in their later career interviews because of the gender stereotypes that maintain that women should act modestly.

Nadal was, again, the deviation case, because he used more self-softening hedges than two of the female tennis players in the multiple grand slams interviews. It is uncommon for male players to use a high amount of self-softening hedges so the media notices Nadal’s uncertain language. However, the media views the unconfident language as a display of humility.

Conclusion

Overall, our results show that both gender stereotypes and professional expertise may affect a tennis player’s perceived affordances to speak confidently. Both genders see themselves as being able to speak assertively once they have achieved a higher status, through the winning of multiple grand slams. However, the female players still speak indirectly and unassertively in some scenarios because they conform to the gender stereotypes which state they should act modestly. These patterns reflect the broader gender differences in perceived abilities to behave in certain ways based on career accomplishments, social status, and societal stereotypes. We show that gender stereotypes can be widespread and reflected in the language. Even the sports that seem gender-neutral, such as tennis, are not safe from these gender patterns.

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Full research paper

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Current issues facing female athletes:

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