It happened on a Russian television show.
"I was at the Olympics and saw Maria Sharapova play her … him …," said Ivan Urgant, the host of an aptly named nighttime interview show, Evening Urgant.
"… One of the Williams brothers," Shamil Tarpischev finished.
This would just be ugly if run-of-the-mill sexism were it not for the fact that Tarpischev is head of Russia's Tennis Federation and the director of an annual professional tournament in Moscow. Now, he faces a one-year ban and a $25,000 fine from the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) for his comments.
"I am sorry that the joke which was translated into English out of its context of a comedy show drew so much attention," he has said since in a statement. "I don’t think this situation is worth all the hoopla because those words were said without any malice." He later added the event "was hyped to an absurd level."
Serena Williams will kick off defending her WTA Tour Finals championship in Singapore this week. The WTA's swift action seems to have kept the comments from becoming a distraction.
"I think the WTA did a great job of taking initiative and taking immediate action to his comments. I thought they were very insensitive and extremely sexist as well as racist at the same time," Serena Williams said in a press conference Sunday. "I thought they were in a way bullying."
Even Maria Sharapova, a Russian who had her share of run-ins with Serena Williams, spoke out against the comments made by the man who has been her team captain in Federation Cup competition.
"I think they were very disrespectful and uncalled for, and I'm glad that many people have stood up, including the WTA," she said. "It was very inappropriate, especially in his position and all the responsibilities that he has not just in sport, but being part of the Olympic committee. It was just really irresponsible on his side."
Part of the reason Tarpiscehv's comments stood out is because of how the WTA has led the way for women in many other sports. Indeed, thanks to Billie Jean King and her allies who pioneered the modern tour, women's professional tennis went from a fledgling, ad-hoc affair to a global business that offers players a pick of tournaments nearly every week of the year. At this year's U.S. Open, each singles champion took home $3 million with the potential for bonus money—a long way from when Wimbledon and the U.S. Open first began in the 19th century without a women's event at all.
But sexism—sometimes institutional—has still reared its head recently in the sport.
During Wimbledon this year, when Andy Murray hired his second female coach (the first was his mother, Judy), Australian player Marinko Matosevic said, "For me, I couldn't do it since I don't think that highly of the women's game."
At last year's Australian Open, French tennis star Jo-Wilfried Tsonga said the reason that the women's tour, with just a few exceptions, is so topsy-turvy is because, "You know, the girls, they are more unstable emotionally than us. I'm sure everybody will say it's true, even the girls. … No? No, you don't think?" He added: "But, I mean, it's just about hormones and all this stuff. We don't have all these bad things, so we are physically in a good shape every time, and you are not. That's it."
In 2012, Gilles Simon, another French tennis player, told reporters at Wimbledon that he thinks "men's tennis is ahead of women's tennis," that they "provide a more attractive show," and that they "spend twice as long on court as women do at Grand Slams." And because of all that, he intoned, nothing justifies equal prize money.
When Ernests Gulbis, a Latvian player who has reached the top 10 in the world tennis rankings, was asked earlier this year whether or not he would like any of his sisters to join him on the tour, he seemed to think he was doing them a favor by saying no.
"Hopefully they're not going to pursue a professional tennis career. Hopefully," said Gulbis. "Because for a woman, it's tough. I wouldn't like my sisters to become professional tennis players. It's tough choice of life. A woman needs to enjoy life a little bit more. Needs to think about family, needs to think about kids. What kids you can think about until age of 27 if you're playing professional tennis, you know. That's tough for a woman, I think."
But tennis journalist Lindsay Gibbs, who developed a guide to keep sexism out of tennis coverage ahead of Wimbledon this year, says that the media is just as much to blame as anybody else. Ironically, she was inspired by Gilles Simon, who said, "What got to me was finding myself in the big press conference room at Wimbledon facing media that were asking me to justify myself, while they themselves had been writing six pages on men's tennis for every two pages on women's for years."
"C'mon guys, take some responsibility!"