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Why can’t tennis umpire Marijana Veljovic do her job without being objectified?

No, she didn’t “steal the limelight” at the Australian Open – and she deserves more than leering tabloid headlines.

If you aren’t an avid tennis fan, you could almost be forgiven for assuming umpires have it easy. Almost. However, there’s so much more to umpiring than sitting in a very tall chair and occasionally shouting the word ‘deuce’: they are the guardians of the Rules of Tennis and enforce them to ensure a match is played in a spirit of fair play.

As such, scoring a job as an international level chair umpire is, actually, very difficult. First, you have to pay your dues as a line umpire (for those not up-to-date with the lingo, those are the people responsible for calling the lines on the tennis court). Next, you have to pass a level 1, 2 and 3 certification. And then, once you’ve done all that, you still have to climb the ranks to gold-badge level. (Chair umpires start as a Bronze Badge and depending on their performance will be promoted to Silver and then to Gold in the annual review conducted by the ITF, ATP and WTA).

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Marijana Veljovic has put in all of that hard work, and more. The gold-badge umpire has officiated two grand slams, the 2019 Wimbledon Championships and a Fed Cup Final. And she’s one of the few women who officiate the sport – a fact which she’s all too aware of. (“Whether you are a girl or a guy, if you do well and they think you are good enough to do the biggest matches, it feels amazing that our sport is allowing us that,” she said in 2018.)

We weren’t surprised, then, when Veljovic was selected to oversee a tense five-set match between Roger Federer and Tennys Sandgren at this year’s Australian Open. When Federer rounded on the Serbian judge for calling an “audible obscenity” code violation, and she coolly refused to be shaken, we barely batted an eyelid – although our hearts swelled with pride.

And the slew of sexist tabloid headlines that followed Veljovic and Federer’s interaction? Also unsurprising – albeit incredibly disappointing.

Marijana Veljovic looks on during the Men’s Singles Quarterfinal match between Tennys Sandgren of the United States and Roger Federer of Switzerland on day nine of the 2020 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 28, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
Marijana Veljovic looks on during the Men’s Singles Quarterfinal match between Tennys Sandgren and Roger Federer at the 2020 Australian Open.

Fawning at best, utterly misogynist at worst, certain media outlets decided that Veljovic’s physical appearance was integral to their Australian Open reportage. One headline described her as “elegantly cute”. Another described her as “super pretty”, before insisting that her courtside appearance had “set pulses racing”. And one went so far as to claim that “Veljovic’s stunning looks overshadowed Federer vs Sandgren Australian Open tie”.

While we don’t deny it’s nice to see the tabloids being nice about a woman’s looks (so rare, so unlike them), the outpouring over Veljovic has seen her name trend on Twitter, and searches for her spike on Google. Which means that this woman – who has worked tirelessly to make a name for herself – has done so. Only, in the process, she’s now become famous for…

Well, for what? Not for laying down the laws of tennis, but for looking “cute” and “sexy”. Not for making a difficult call and sticking to it, but for “melting [the] hearts of enamoured fans” all over the world. 

It sounds small, yes. It sounds like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. And some might say, “so what? At least she got her name out there!”

However, throwaway headlines such as these shape a much wider narrative. And, by tiny, tiny increments, they set a standard for us to judge women by. They feed into this idea that it is OK to calculate a woman’s worth by her appearance. More than OK, in fact. That any success she may have will always, always be overshadowed by her own reflection in the mirror. That she will always be measured against some warped standard of beauty, no matter what the context.

As Jennifer Aniston wrote in her now iconic HuffPost essay: “I’m fed up with the sport-like scrutiny and body shaming that occurs daily under the guise of ‘journalism,’ the ‘First Amendment’ and ‘celebrity news’… [this] objectification and scrutiny we put women through is absurd and disturbing.”

This sort of tabloid gossip, Aniston said, perpetuates a “dehumanising view of females, focused solely on one’s physical appearance… is she pregnant? Is she eating too much? Has she let herself go?” And, worse, it has a huge impact on young girls when they see famous women’s bodies picked apart in this way.

“Here’s where I come out on this topic,” she concluded. “We get to decide for ourselves what is beautiful when it comes to our bodies. That decision is ours and ours alone.”

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