France's Marion Bartoli won her first and only major back in 2013, beating Sabine Lisicki to claim the women's singles title at Wimbledon. She retired almost immediately after that feat. It's 2016 now and she's back in the news once more. No new titles in her bag, or a return from retirement on the cards, and yet, Bartoli finds herself being discussed and dissected on social media as if she were still putting in title-winning performances or signing on as a coach with a top player.
Bartoli's return to the public domain is for reasons unrelated to tennis. She's back in the news because, get this, she's lost weight. If some reports are to be believed, the former top ten player has dropped nearly 20 kilos in the last three years and Bartoli's new frame has brought with it new fame.
Images of a much-thinner Bartoli than the one we remember holding the Wimbledon shield aloft in 2013 are doing the rounds on the interweb. I'd be lying if I say I didn't do a double take when I saw some of the photographs. The French woman does look starkly different from three years ago. But it's the comments that are proliferating at breakneck speed that are more eye-catching.
Expressions of concern, downright disgust and worries of anorexia are only some of the reactions the "then and now" images have generated. But, Bartoli isn't the first woman in sports to find herself being scrutinised for her body and looks. In fact, she's already been in the spotlight for her physique before. Back then Bartoli was considered too heavy by some and tweets referring to the player often included choice epithets like fatty, ugly and pig.
However, it wasn't just couch critics who were poking fun at Bartoli's fuller figure. Following her win at Wimbledon she received some particularly misogynistic comments from BBC commentator John Inverdale. Instead of simply lauding the French woman for what she had achieved (a grand slam singles title no less) Inverdale waxed eloquent on, and I paraphrase here: how Bartoli's father probably told her she would never have Maria Sharapova's looks or legs and probably learned early on that she would need to compensate in some way.
Inverdale was relieved of his duties, but the scrutiny of women in sport seems to continue unabated. Serena Williams had her 'been there, done that' moment last year when her eyebrows caused offense for being too bushy. By the way, the Twitter storm over Serena's 'caterpillar-like' eyebrows broke around the time she picked up her 21st grand slam singles title. So, whether you have one major like Bartoli, or twenty more like Williams, if you're a woman, it's probably not going to shield you from unwarranted comments on your body, hair, choice of outfit, or anything really.
Unfortunately the stark difference in attitudes to women's and men's performances on a sports field are not limited to those of spectators and commentators. Earlier this year, the Chief Executive of the Indian Wells Masters tournament Raymond Moore provoked criticism for his distatsteful comments on women's tennis. He suggested that the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) and female players should be grateful to men's tennis since they "ride on the coat-tails" of male players. He went so far as to propose that women's players should go down on their knees every night in gratitude to players like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the very fact that they were born.
Tennis is one of the few sports where there is a certain gender parity when it comes to prize money with all four Grand Slams awarding equal rewards to winners. However, shortly after Moore's comments came to light, men's singles world number one Novak Djokovic suggested that it was right for men to receive a larger purse because men's tennis attracts more viewers.
Men's tennis may garner more eyeballs, but how much does that have to do with interest from spectators and how much from television schedules that give more air-time to men's matches? Seventy-six per cent of BBC's coverage of the first week of Wimbledon in 2015 was dedicated to men's tennis. That aside, if fewer people do in fact tune in to or attend women's matches does it also demand that women put in lesser effort in to training and performance as a result?
The latest fracas with Bartoli's new physique is telling of our attitudes toward women in sport. The expectations from men and women are vastly different and any deviation from those standards is dealt with harshly. However, while men are, for the most part, judged on the basis of their performance on the field, women are open to far harsher comments that makes unwarranted criticism of any aspect of their lives fair game.