Having previously written about tennis in these two articles Borg VS McEnroe Film, or the importance of Vitas Gerulaitis to tennis history and the media #spoileralert and Battle of the Sexes : The representation of gender and sexuality in cinema and sport,  I was recently given the opportunity to speak at Crewe for the Playing Past Forum:-

The presentation was entitled ‘The Gendered Tournament – Wimbledon 1980’ and was presented in a Prezi format. I am therefore writing this up into an article. Interested predominantly in what Garry Whannel said in “Field In Vision. That:-

The central narrative question for the coming fortnight [of the Wimbledon Tournament], namely, ‘who can stop Borg?’, ‘Can anyone stop Borg?’ The men’s singles was treated as much more important than either the doubles or the women’s singles. This raises a complex question: to what extent are hierarchization like this constructed by television [or film], and to what extent does Television merely relay, in reflective fashion, the pre-existent hierarchisation of the Sport itself?

For me, it was the ‘why’ is the 1980 men’s final given importance to the detriment of the women’s? Plus, what is the story of the women’s final? I had no idea who won the Women’s final, but I knew the men’s because it’s been covered so much, by cinema and even HBO Sports: McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice — McEnroe The Competitor. Therefore, my primary aim is to underline a rather patriarchal approach to sport, in that the male game is given more precedence than the female form.

In looking at the women’s tournament of 1980, I found the following things:-

  1. First tie-break in a Final at Wimbledon.
  2. The Quarter-final between Billie-Jean King and Martina Navratilova was prior to either being ‘out’ or ‘outed’.
  3. Evonne Goolagong Cawley was the first woman in 66 years to win a title after having a baby.
  4. Her victory was the longest (9 years) between her 1st and 2nd at Wimbledon victory.
  5. Tracy Austin was a losing Semi-finalist and represents the story of the ‘protege burnout’ narrative of female tennis (think Jaeger and Capriati and compare with Agassi – his USA victory is seen as a ‘phoenix narrative’).
  6. Evonne is called Evonne Cawley on television at the end of the final. Note the masculine narrative.
  7. Chris Evert had taken time off after her recent marriage and won the Italian and French Open prior to Wimbledon. Taking breaks had become important within some players’ games, especially when the main narrative was about ‘when are you having a baby with John Lloyd?’
  8. Women’s final played on a Friday.

All of these I will cover more fully, underlining that the women’s final is at least as significant as the men’s.  I will also discuss the following:-

  1. Gender – The male gaze and tennis.
  2. Society – The changing face of Women’s tennis via the Quarter-Final of Wimbledon, 1980.
  3. Sexuality – The changing face of society via tennis.
  4. Television – The creation of a ‘rival’ to increase viewing figures.
  5. Which Australia wins? Evonne Goolagong and national identity.

in looking at the Borg Vs McEnroe film, I was struck by how females are shown within the film. The women are either girlfriends or mothers. None are extended upon within the context of the storyline. An example of this can be seen when Vitas Gerulaitis takes John McEnroe to ‘Annabels’ night club in London, surrounded by women, who perform one role. To look nice. Oh, and underline the masculinity of all the men.

Within the context of film studies this is called the ‘male Gaze Theory’ which was elaborated on the article Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema -Laura Mulvey :-

One is scopophilia [the pleasure of looking]. There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at. Originally, in his Three Essays on Sexuality, Freud isolated scopophilia as one of the component instincts of sexuality which exist as drives quite independently of the erotogenic zones. – Within the Borg/McEnroe, vitas gerulaitis represents this in his attendance at studio 54.

The Borg Vs McEnroe movie utilises the female form more as an object than a subject. Again, this underlines what John Vincent “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby” but When Will You Get to Deuce? The Media (Re)presentation of Women‘s Tennis in the Post Open Era article terms :-

This long history of sport being a space for men (or, really, a space absent of women).

The changing face of women’s tennis can certainly be seen within Wimbledon 1980 with Tracy Austin (image of her above). As David Foster Wallace wrote of her –

She played Wimbledon at 14, turned pro as a 9th grader, won the US Open at 16, and was ranked number 1 in the World at just 17, in 1980. This was the same year her body started to fall apart.

Austin would be the Wimbledon no.1 seed at the 1980 Wimbledon finals, losing in the Semi-final to Evonne Goolagong.

The importance of young girls learning to play tennis to advance their finance futures has been noted by Elizabeth Wilson prior to the Tracy Austin era that:-

Children were learning tennis from an early age…..Agents were hungry for emerging talents and tennis academies were keen to develop them.

The effect of young players having to become proteges can be seen in the youngest ever Wimbledon seed Andrea Jaeger  – who was victorious against Virginia Wade and the youngest seed at 1980 Finals. Jaeger later confessed that she threw the 1983 final – I let Martina win the title [1983] – after her father alleged she was eating crisps. Having a dominating father, caused many headlines and for Jaeger meant she hated tennis and is now a nun.

The unspoken sexuality of both players in the quarter-final between Martina Navratilova versus Billie Jean King in 1980, indicates a very different era, one of blissful ignorance on the part of the supporters. Neither players were seen as ‘lesbian icons’ at the time, and they would not ‘come out’ or be ‘outed’ until 1981. Billie Jean-King said of her outing in the press  ‘It was horrible’.

Navratilova said of her own coming out in 1981 (when she refused to deny her sexuality):-

I already looked different, I was big. I was strong. I didn’t apologise for anything. I came from a Communist country, but was too much of a capitalist. The attitude was ‘We’ll put her back in her place. I was so different in every single way. And of top of that, I was gay.

The importance of both players in the women’s tennis scene is undeniable. Both are in the top 10 all time list of women players.

Cinema has recently taken an interest in women’s tennis with the film Battle of the Sexes. Or the sexuality of Billie Jean King? No mention of the ‘palimony’ she paid her partner in 1981 though. The film is more a romanticised love story than a story about a complex relationship, and shows the market that the studio seemed to be aiming for. Romance over reality, with sport in the background.

Martina Navratilova has been critical of how her sexuality is seen by the press and said:-

Women and men are treated differently even in something as private as sexuality. Sports-writers have no problem asking a women, ‘Is it true you’re sleeping with other women?’, but they’d never ask a man whether he was sleeping with other men!

The 1980 women’s final would also be important for the semi-final between Chris Evert-Lloyd and Martina Navratilova and the ongoing rivalry between the two players. Over their careers they played each other 80 times with Navratilova coming out on top 43-37. The assumed rivalry of Borg and McEnroe was a mere 12 games in total.

Martina Navratilova versus Chris Evert has been one of the longest lasting tennis rivalries. Its importance can be seen with the 30/30 documentary ‘Unmatched’ which was one of the first to look at female competitors.

The rivalry reached became so high profile that even the comedy show Saturday Night Live spoofed it after the 1987 Wimbledon semi-final loss to Martina.

The creation of a ‘rival’ is often used to increase viewing figures. David Rowe has called this the ‘unruly trinity’ in which television, sponsorship and competition is needed to create a spectacle. This is another reason why the 1980 Women’s final was significant, and adds a further point to the importance of the game. That female rivalry was being taken onboard by TV.

That the winner was Evonne Goolagong is also of central importance due to her ethnicity. Goolagong was of aborigine descent. Marion Stell stated :-

In the cultural pecking order of Australian sports, white males have always placed themselves at the top. They determine the order of those who follow: second are race horses, third aboriginal males, fourth white women and fifth and last black women.

Goolagong was often spoken of in disparaging terms in her country of birth. For example, Colin Tatz states one Australian Premier said of Evonne Goolagong, prior to the Wimbledon 1980 Final ‘[I hope she] wouldn’t go walkabout* like some old boong.’ in Aborigines in Sport [1987]

Hargreaves in her excellent book Heroines of Sport: The Politics of Difference and Identity has discussed how often Goolagong was cited to go ‘walkabout’ by the Australian press due to her Aboriginal roots [although no concrete proof was produced by them, except with reference to her race].

But in looking at her record, she was an impressive competitor. Evonne Goolagong’s record in Grand Slams – 18 Finals, 7 Wins, 4 Consecutive losses in USA Open (ironically, similar to Borg, who never won the US), is 8th in the all time list of female grand slam winners (alongside Justine Henin and Venus Williams).

In conclusion, the 1980 Women’s Wimbledon final is arguably more interesting for historians and tennis aficionado’s than the men’s. It sees a period of rivals, sexuality (and pay gaps) beginning to come to the forefront of tennis. It seems that Wimbledon itself acknowledged this change when the Wimbledon Women’s final was switched from Friday to Saturday, with the Men’s moving to Sunday – Men’s Final, (New York Times, 1981). Officials said the Sunday final would increase crowd appeal worldwide and that an extra $750,000 profit would be made to help the sport in Britain. Wimbledon had been the only major championship to hold its men’s final on a Saturday.


*Australian term – walkabout.

  1. a brief, informal leave from work, taken by an Aborigine to wander the bush, visit relatives, or return to native life.
  2. absence from work.

Article © Les Crang