Victoria Azarenka said exploitation of women players in professional tennis occurs “right and left” and that the sport should ensure protection issues are at the forefront of its concerns.
“It’s a very touchy subject because you’re not going to hear those stories unless the players come out and tell those stories. It’s happening right and left on the tour, which is unfortunate,” Azarenka said in her post-match press conference after reaching the fourth round of the US Open on Sunday. “Our job is to protect better. As a players’ council, it’s almost like the #1 issue for us. Because we see these vulnerable young ladies being taken advantage of in other situations.”
Azarenka, two-time Grand Slam champion and former No. 1, is the most high-profile member of the WTA Player Council. She described seeing coaches manipulating players into dependency.
“Especially in women’s football I see so many coaches who make their players dependent, I think that’s very dangerous. It’s also very manipulative. I wish there was a little more talk about this kind of topic,” Azarenka said.
Azarenka’s comments come amid news earlier this week that Fiona Ferro, the former France No. 39, filed charges against her former coach Pierre Bouteyre for rape and sexual assault between 2012 and 2015 when she was between 15 and 18 at Bouteyre has admitted the relationship but claims their relationship was consensual. On Friday, Ferro released a statement on social media: “I confirm that I have not consented,” she wrote.
Discussing security issues in general, Azarenka went straight to Ferro’s case: “[The] last story with Fiona Ferro that came out. Sometimes I don’t know how to put it into words. All you can do is look up the person and shake your hand, which is what I can do to help. So I applaud her for her bravery. I hope she emerges stronger from this situation and that it doesn’t ruin her tennis. That is [a] very, very difficult subject,” she said.
Azarenka, who has a five-year-old son, Leo, says if she had a daughter she would be concerned about her playing on the tour given the troubles she has seen. “It’s really sad and makes me very emotional because I have a son that I don’t see that happening so often on the men’s tour. And if I had a daughter, I would have a question, if she would like to play tennis, that would be a very big concern for me in that regard,” she said.
Azarenka says she’s raised the issue with other players, but inappropriate coaching behavior often goes unacknowledged until players stop winning. “At the end of the day, the problem here is that when someone wins, nobody goes and says, ‘Okay, that’s the thing [manipulative behaviour].’ When the winning stops, it goes dark and there is no one to hold your hand. That’s when it’s not talked about.”
Taking to social media, 22-time Grand Slam doubles champion Pam Shriver implored tennis federations to prioritize protection and thanked Azarenka for her comments. Earlier this year, Shriver revealed “an inappropriate and damaging relationship” she had with her former trainer, Don Candy.
“The more active and retired players are willing to take action against abuse, the faster the workplace will become safer. Thanks Vika,” Shriver wrote.