Sport

Victoria Azarenka says exploitation of female players happens ‘right and left’

Victoria Azarenka has said that exploitation of female players happens “right and left” in professional tennis and that the sport should ensure that safeguarding issues are at the forefront of its concerns.

“It’s a very sensitive subject, because you won’t hear those stories unless players come out and tell those stories. It happens right and left on the tour, which is unfortunate,” said Azarenka in her post-match press conference after reaching the US Open fourth round on Sunday. “Our job is to be better at safeguarding. As player council, it’s almost like No 1 subject, to us. Because we see those vulnerable young ladies that getting taken advantage of in different situation.”

Azarenka, a two-time grand slam champion and former No 1, is the highest-profile member of the WTA player council. She described how she has seen coaches who manipulate female players into dependence.

“In the women’s game, particularly, I see so many coaches that make their players dependent on them, and I think that’s very dangerous. It’s very manipulative too. I wish that kind of subject was talked about a little bit more,” said Azarenka.

Azarenka’s comments come in light of the news earlier this week that Fiona Ferro, the French former No 39, has filed charges against her former coach, Pierre Bouteyre, for rape and sexual assault between 2012 and 2015, when she was aged between 15 and 18. Bouteyre has admitted the relationship but claims that their relationship was consensual. On Friday, Ferro released a statement on social media: “I confirm that I was not consenting,” she wrote.

As she spoke about safeguarding issues in general, Azarenka directly addressed Ferro’s case: “[The] recent story with Fiona Ferro that came out. I don’t know how to put it in words sometimes. All you can do is check in on the person and give your hand what I can do, what I can help with. So I applaud her for being brave. I hope this situation she’s gonna come out of it stronger and tennis is not ruined for her because of that. That’s [a] very, very heavy topic,” she said.

Azarenka, who has a five year old son, Leo, says that if she had a daughter, she would be concerned about her playing on the tour given the issues she has seen. “It’s really sad and really makes me emotional, because I have a son, that I don’t see that happens so much on the men’s tour. And if I had a daughter, I would have a question would she want to play tennis, that would be a very big concern in that way for me,” she said.

Azarenka says that she has discussed the subject with other players, but inappropriate coaching behaviour is often not acknowledged until players stop winning. “At the end of the day, the problem here is when somebody is winning, nobody’s going to go and say, ‘Okay, that’s the thing [manipulative behaviour].’ When the winning stops, it becomes dark and there is nobody to hold your hand. That is the moment where it’s not talked about.”

On social media, 22-time doubles grand slam champion Pam Shriver implored the tennis governing bodies to prioritise safeguarding and thanked Azarenka for her comments. Earlier this year, Shriver revealed “an inappropriate and damaging relationship” she had with her former coach, Don Candy.

“The more players, current and retired, are willing to address abuse, the faster the workplace will become safer. Thank you Vika,” wrote Shriver.

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