Before walking out to Center Court on Monday night, I prepared myself for the worst case scenario. Moments before the match, on the TV monitor in the gym, I could see that there were still very few fans positioned in their seats. I prepped myself for a deflated walk-out scene and a distant - if not completely detached - crowd of a thousand in the massive 14,000 seat stadium.
This wasn't a new prep routine for me. Coming from the challengers and qualifying rounds, I am very accustomed to empty seats, if not empty stadiums like this one. "It's not about how many people are there or what the atmosphere is like, it's about the tennis," a familiar self-told mantra ran through my head, almost on auto-pilot.
This time, I had completely miscalculated. Hundreds of fans were filing in as the announcer sent my name flying up into the night sky and it was met with energy. Not final round qualifying on Court 1 energy, and not even first on Stadium Court at 11am. This felt like the real deal in a way that no prior experiences had prepared me for. Meanwhile, for my opponent, No.4 in the world, this was nothing new. This was unexceptional - just another evening at the office.
I had a feeling I might be in trouble when we got to the overheads segment of the warmup. My overhead, a shot I normally rely on for its consistency (and general non-sh***yness) was all over the place. Shank. Miss-hit. Shank, shank. 10 feet long. Oh god. I readied myself in my chair after the warmup. You can do this. Focus on the tennis, there's nothing to lose here. You belong here. I got up from my chair and set up to serve for the first point of the match.
"Ready, play." The hum of the crowd turns to complete silence. When did it get so dark? I can't make out a single face up in the stands. Wow, these lights are really, really bright. Everyone in the audience can see me, but I can't see them, I can only hear that they're there. It's an eerie feeling. My head is spinning, and I'm feeling a little disconnected from my body. Somehow, I win the first game.
And that would be the last game I won.
Air Gibbsy??? pic.twitter.com/RE1Yg5XWbn
? Mike (@mrenzaero) March 25, 2016
Around the time I would normally settle into a match after a nervous start, around 4-1, things just got worse. My serve had completely disappeared, I wasn't moving well to my left, my body felt tense and foreign, and my opponent was playing high level tennis. This was a nightmare. By the time 6-1 2-0 rolled around, I had taken on an even greater sense of despair. Here I had been arguing for equal pay for the WTA just earlier this week, and now I'm going to be used as a case-in-point example for the opposition's stance. The arguments go, "The WTA provides an inferior product to the ATP" and "The top players barely spend time on the court because there's no depth on the women's side."
I thought to myself, just please get games and make the match longer or more entertaining. Please don't give people another reason to call you, or more importantly, your sport, a joke?
Have received a lot of comments like WTA>ATP, I like women's tennis more, in light of Moore comments. Appreciated but misses the point...
... Not about who's better or what's more fun to watch. About equality. About supporting each other. I'm happy if we all succeed!!
For all of you who are reading this and thinking, "Wow, was she really thinking about all that during the match?" Yes, I was. But this pattern of thinking is nothing new to me. As a female athlete, it can sometimes feel like I have to put up a fight for basic respect. I could already see the post match tweets saying, "Ha ha, 55 minutes on court and 1 game but you deserve equal pay??" or "What a joke that you think your opinion matters to anyone, you're a crappy WTA player," or even a rendition of "Go back to the kitchen where you'll be useful."
Most of the time, it's easy to view these messages with humor. These aren't the people whose opinions I value. So if it stopped there, with a few isolated hate messages on Facebook or Twitter, that would be one thing. But it doesn't come close to stopping there.
For me, being told that what I am doing is second class is second nature. Moments after Raymond Moore's comments at Indian Wells a few weeks ago, I received messages from ATP players, goading me, asserting that Moore's reasoning was sound. I have had countless individuals, men and women alike, suggest to me that tennis skirts are the principle driver of revenue on the women's tour. From average, high school aged male tennis players challenging me to matches because they're sure they could never lose to a girl, to male coaches telling me, "In women's tennis, you don't even have to be talented to succeed."
Every athlete's dream to play on center under the lights. Every athlete's nightmare for that to be the outcome. But, ? happens. #ontothenext
Thanks for the fun week and great learning experience, @MiamiOpen!! Coming back stronger next year.
I feel like I've seen it all. But in reality, I haven't. I live in a privileged world in which the idea of equality is actually entertained. For a majority of women in the world, issues of female infanticide and domestic violence trump simple issues of pay and respect. But when are we going to get to a place as a global community where disrespect and lack of opportunity are no longer the problems reserved for fortunate women?
In the meantime, Billie Jean King tells me that I have a platform, so I plan to use it. Because I, for one, would love for my future daughter to fight for a game down 6-1 2-0 because she hates getting bageled, not because she's worried that a bagel might undermine her right to equality.