Sexism In The Media: Serena Williams and Roger Federer (2017-2022)

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The difference in news media coverage Serena Williams versus Roger Federer was analyzed. The time period was 2017 to 2022, and the content was analyzed through a gendered lens. For further exploration, the intersection between race and gender should be considered.

Serena Williams Career Highlights (2017-2022)

Williams at the 2018 French Open wearing the Nike 'Catsuit'.[1]


Williams started off her 2017 season by claiming her 23rd major singles title in the Australian Open on January 28th, 2017.[2] She beat out her sister Venus Williams to win 6-4, 6-4 in the final match.[2]

Soon after in April, Williams announced she was 20 weeks pregnant with her first child [3] and that she would be taking a break from tennis to go on maternity leave.[4]

In her first match that year after giving birth, Williams lost to Jelena Ostapenko on December 30th at the World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi.[5]


After her victory in 2017, Williams released a statement on the social media platform Snapchat announcing her withdrawal from the 2018 Australian Open.[6] In the statement she said that she did not feel personally ready to play after giving birth.

She returned to Grand Slam tennis in May, playing doubles with her sister in the 2018 French Open.[7] However, Williams soon had to withdraw from the competition after sustaining a pectoral injury during an early match.[8] Williams faced controversy in the French Open for wearing a black Nike ‘catsuit’ in her matches which was subsequently banned by the French Tennis Officials.[9][10]

Following her injuries, Williams entered the 2018 Wimbledon Championship where she was beaten out in the final round 6-3, 6-3 by Germany’s Angelique Kerber.[11] This meant she missed out on securing her 24th Grand Slam title.[12] Following her defeat, she gave a heartfelt message to mothers that she was “playing for you today”.[13]

During the Silicon Valley Classic Williams suffered what was named ‘the worst defeat in her career’, where she lost 6-1, 6-0 to Johanna Konta.[14]

Williams competed in the 2018 US Opens and reached the finals where she then faced a 6-2, 6-4 defeat to Naomi Osaka.[15] She was fined a total of $17,000 for illegal coaching, breaking her racket, and verbally abusing the umpire by calling him a thief.[16]


Williams injured her ankle in the 2019 Australian Open which meant she lost in the quarter finals before being able to face Naomi Osaka who she lost to in the previous year’s controversial US Open final.[17] However, she stated that she did not believe her ankle injury was the reason she lost.

Williams then had to retire out of the Indian Wells championship after suffering a viral illness which she said made her experience extreme dizziness and fatigue.[18]

During the Rogers Cup final, Williams had to retire after experiencing a back injury which meant that Bianca Andreescu claimed the victory.[19] Andreescu then went on to beat out Williams in the US Open final also.[20]  


Williams returned to victory in the 2020 Auckland Classic, her first win since the 2017 Australian Open and since giving birth.[21] However, she was knocked out in the third round of the 2020 Australian Open.[22]

Federer at the 2016 Wimbledon Championships[23]

During the 2020 US Open, Williams was knocked out in the semi-finals by Victoria Azarenka, suffering a 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 defeat.[24]


In her first championship of 2021, Williams reached the semi-finals of the Yarra Valley Classic Open.[25] However, she had to retire before the semi-final match due to a shoulder injury.

At the 2021 Australian Open, Williams lost to Naomi Osaka in the semi-finals.[26]

Williams then had to withdraw from the 2021 US Open after suffering a torn hamstring.[27]


Williams’ injured hamstring continued to affect her tournaments, where she announced she was ‘not where I need to be physically to compete’ and withdrew from the 2022 Australian Open.[28]

On August 9th 2022, Williams announced her retirement from tennis to Vogue. In her statement, she discussed how she ‘never like the word retirement’, and instead viewed her move away from tennis as evolving.[29]

Roger Federer Career Highlights (2017-2022)


Federer’s 2017 season started with him claiming his 18th Grand Slam title by defeating Rafael Nadal in the 2017 Australian Open final.[30] This win came after he had surgery on an injured knee that meant he did not play for 6 months.[31]

Following this winning streak, Federer defeated opponent Marin Cilic, becoming the first man to win the Wimbledon Championship eight times.[32] He did not drop a single set during the Wimbledon 2017 Championship.[33]

His winning streak was then halted however, where he was defeated in the US Open during the quarter finals by Juan Martin del Potro.[34]


Federer started off the 2018 season by claiming his 20th Grand Slam title in the 2018 Australian Open.[35] He then gave the crowd a tearful speech saying, ‘winning is just an absolute dream come true’.[36]

Federer entered the 2018 Indian Wells Masters as a defending champion. He made it to the final but was defeated by Juan Martin del Potro.[37] A similar pattern followed during the 2018 Wimbledon Tournament, where Federer entered as the reigning champion but did not manage to defend his title, losing in the quarter final.[38]

Federer faced defeat at the 2018 US Open, where he experienced his first defeat by a player outside of the top 50 in the fourth round.[39]


After winning the Australian Open the past two years, Federer was knocked out of the 2019 Australian Open before the quarter final.[40]

Federer was knocked out of the 2019 French Open by Rafael Nadal in the semi-final, losing 6-3, 6-4, 6-2.[41]

In the 2019 Wimbledon championship, Federer reached the final but was defeated by Novak Djokovic in what was the longest singles final in the history of Wimbledon.[42]

Federer advanced to the quarterfinals in the 2019 US Open but was ultimately defeated by Grigor Dimitrov.[43]


Federer faced a groin injury early on during the 2020 Australian Open and was defeated in the semi-finals by Novak Djokovic.[44][45] Federer then announced through Twitter that he was withdrawing from the remaining 2020 season, needing the time to recover after having surgery on his right knee.[46][47]


Federer returned to tennis in the 2021 French Open where he reached the fourth round. However, he withdrew before the match, citing that he needed more recovery time after his knee surgeries.[48]

He returned to tennis at the 2021 Wimbledon Championship but was defeated in the quarterfinals by Hubert Hurkacz.[49]

Federer announced that he was undergoing additional knee surgery and that he would be withdrawing from the US Open.[50]


Federer announced through twitter that he was retiring from tennis, saying that he will continue to play but no longer in Grand Slam events.[51][52]

Serena Williams Media Coverage Analysis

BBC, CNN, and The Guardian all have liberal leaning standpoints when putting forth their reporting and analysis of issues. Despite their liberal tendencies, they speak about male athletes through a strength and ability lens while mentioning motherhood as an important part of a woman’s life.


In an article titled “Motherhood isn’t easy – even for a warrior like Serena Williams” Gaby Hinsliff discusses how Williams has faced battles both on and off the court that include her physical and psychological struggles.[53]

In August of 2022, Williams was interviewed by Rob Haskell in a Vogue Magazine article Serena Williams Says Farewell to Tennis On Her Own Terms—And In Her Own Words.  Serena stated “Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family. I don’t think it’s fair. If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labor of expanding our family.”[29]

Navigating herself in a male-dominated sport is something Williams is vocal about. In a BBC Sport article by Amy Lofthouse, includes the following Twitter comment from Serena Williams “Catsuit anyone? For all the moms out there who had a tough recovery from pregnancy—here you go. If I can do it, so can you. Love you all!!”[54]


In a CNN article by George Ramsay and Elizabeth Pérez titled "Serena Williams ‘paved the way’ for mothers to keep playing tennis," says Martina Navratilova, they discuss the impact Serena has had on other women.[55]

The Guardian

In a Guardian article titled 'Serena Williams accuses umpire of sexism and vows to 'fight for women’ the Associated Press discusses how not only are women in sport treated differently than men but are also commented on with different language.[56] Williams said, “I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things,” she said. “I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff. For me to say ‘thief’, and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark. He’s never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief’.[56] Serena is a powerful figure for many women to look up to for how she has confronted sexist remarks from umpires during her career as well as encouraging women who are athletes and mothers to fight for further gender equality.

The ways in which The Guardian article discussed Serena Williams reiterated what many other women in sport have experienced.

Roger Federer Media Coverage Analysis

BBC Sport

BBC is the national broadcaster of the United Kingdom and the most popular television news broadcast across the UK. Thus, the BBC's influence holds tremendous weight. The BBC’s coverage of Roger Federer focuses on his career accomplishments and, unlike much of Williams' coverage, focuses last on his personal life. This is evident in the BBC’s article “Roger Federer: 20-time Grand Slam champion retires after Laver Cup loss.”[57] Here, the BBC immediately outlines Federer’s winning championships and success as a tennis player in their headline. The BBC first restates his “20 Grand Slam singles titles'' within the second sentence of their article, again focusing on his professional accomplishments which is a theme carried throughout.[58] The BBC claims Federer’s “balletic, graceful and fluent” playing has charmed fans around the world in addition to “his polite and charming personality”. These claims show a clear bias towards Federer and encourage the reader to romanticize not only his career but Federer himself. This coverage is vastly different from that of Serena Williams. The BBC tends to focus on trivial aspects of Williams’ career outside of tennis such as her outfits. For example, “the catsuit she wore at the 2018 French Open '' as said by the BCC shortly after referencing her 2018 look to the Black Panther Movie.[59] Williams is not awarded the privilege of being taken seriously by the BBC. Bringing attention to Williams' tennis outfit as a ‘catsuit’ further connects the female body to stereotypes that have historically hyper-sexualized and marginalized women.  An article like such, surrounding choice of clothes, has never centered Federer as the BCC takes Federer for a professional.


The Cable News Network (CNN) is a multinational television and cable news network based out of the United States. CNN is widely consumed across various platforms and reaches audiences in several countries. CNN’s coverage of Roger Federer uses terms that affirm Federer’s masculine athleticism whilst appealing to sensationalism when describing his retirement from tennis. For example, in the CNN’s article “Roger Federer brings down curtain on his career with a defeat, but still dazzles alongside longtime friend and rival Rafael Nadal,” CNN outlines Federer’s career under the subsections ‘Goodbye to a Legend’ and ‘Man of the Moment’.[60] Author of the article, Ben Morse, sprinkles personal opinion throughout this piece such as: “nobody else in the sport has garnered the global adoration…or become the cultural icon quite like the suave Swiss Superstar.”[60] This generalization, along with the use of terms such as ‘Man of the Moment’ and ‘Legend’, encourage the reader to understand Federer as an athletic anomaly and heroic like figure. However in the CNN’s article, “How Serena Williams rewrote the playbook for female athletes juggling motherhood and sport” subtitles neglect to elude that Williams is ‘Woman of the Moment’ but instead read ‘ playing against the odds’, ‘she was on fire’ and ‘taking control of her narrative’ none of which correlate Williams to the successes of her career.[61] Thus, the CNN puts emphasis on the ‘seriousness’ of Federer as a professional athlete and refrains from outlining how his personal life may impact his career but neglects to do so when covering Williams.  

The Guardian

The Guardian is one of the largest daily newspapers read and distributed in the United Kingdom. The Guardian, along with the outlets above, emphasize Federer as a professional when covering his retirement. The Guardian’s article “Federer v Nadal: a great sporting rivalry rooted in mutual respect” first notes that Federer’s career “spanned four decades at the top of the men’s game, during which he took the game to new levels”.[62] The article goes on to detail Federer’s grand slam champions and matches between rivals while focusing specifically on his rival Nadal.[63] The article outlines how Federer played across various matches and describes his many titles. The Guardian however takes a very different approach in their coverage of Serena Williams. Instead of providing a detailed synopsis of Williams’ career and accomplishments, The Guardian focuses on Williams’ retirement in a short piece that states she “has spoken about becoming a mother again” and outlines her retirement as “an evolution of Serena”. These are important sentiments that remain relevant to her decision to retire. However, The Guardian fails to represent Williams as the accomplished athlete by neglecting to note her contributions to the game of tennis. This article undermines her professional work by focusing on her feelings around retirement. Thus, the reader loses all understanding of Williams’ impact as a female tennis player, career accomplishments and athleticism.

Broader Implications

Diversity in the news media does not necessarily equal environments that foster gendered representation, equality, and unbiased inclusion. With high-profile celebrities and athletes, there is often a perception that simply discussing women is enough. Without proper consideration of the ways in which bias and inequality are still present within these conversations, journalists run the risk of not being held to higher standards of reporting and consideration. In addition, there is a danger that the public’s right to know will be marred by a lack of objectivity and accountability by those helping to shape public opinion.

In the case of Serena Williams and Roger Federer, it is highly prominent in how the differences in news coverage impact the public view of these two athletes. When concerning broader coverage of these two athletes, one reporter at NBC stated that “Serena William’s bravado rubs people the wrong way” and that “Serena Williams is not embraceable to certain people.'' Sports can  reinforce hegemonic masculinity and journalists must understand the broader implications of this.[64][65]

News coverage of a certain individual over a certain period allows for a more precise comparison and understanding of news media patterns. Multiple news outlets have approached the topic of Williams and her gender and racial identities, and how she has been the subject of racism and sexism throughout her career.[66][67] It is critical that journalists educate themselves on the context of their subjects positionality.  Journalists must minimize harm when covering intersectional subjects such as celebrities, athletes,  public figures ect.  Williams tweeted support for Meghan Markle, and spoke on malicious journalism, stating:

I know first-hand the sexism and racism institutions and the media use to vilify women and people of colour to minimise us, to break us down and demonise us. We must recognise our obligation to decry malicious, unfounded gossip and tabloid journalism. The mental health consequences of systemic oppression and victimisation are devastating, isolating, and all too often lethal.[68]

These negative representations also extend towards women in politics, and in leadership positions.[69][70] Journalists must also extend these considerations and sensitivities towards all marginalized and/or misrepresented people. Those in the public sphere, such as Williams and Markle, have media training. However, when speaking on general marginalized and vulnerable peoples, it is important to understand that individuals are often not given media training or support to properly handle negative media perceptions that often have racist and/or sexist connotations to them. Journalists must go beyond “what” they are covering, and think about “why” and “how” they are reporting the facts.


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