Tennis and transgender athletes: policy is under review. Governing bodies pledge to collaborate

By Adam Addicott, posted 06/23/2022 on Ubitennis.net

The debate over the inclusion of transgender athletes in women’s events is a hot topic at the moment after two international sports federations suspended their participation in their own events. A few weeks ago, the International Swimming Federation (Fédération Internationale de natation – FINA) voted in favor of excluding transgender women from elite swimming events in case they have “experienced part of male puberty.”

Their decision was based on their scientific committee’s conclusion that trans women maintained a significant advantage over cisgender swimmers even after reducing testosterone levels through medication. At the same time, the International Rugby League (IRL) has also temporarily banned trans women from playing until further research is conducted to establish a clear policy for the organization. What about tennis?

Our sport was one of the first in the world to feature an MTF (male-to-female) athlete, pioneer Renée Richards. Richards, who played professionally as a man before transitioning, was prevented from taking part in the 1976 U.S. Open qualifiers after failing a chromosomal test. She then initiated a high-profile legal battle, which once won allowed her to participate in the tournament the following year. It was a move that made headlines around the world and divided public opinion. Nevertheless, she still remained barred from other major events whose regulations at the time stated that only women born biologically could participate in women’s events.

Today, both the International Tennis Federation (ITF) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) have their own policies regarding the issue. During an e-mail exchange between the ITF and UbiTennis, it was confirmed to us that a review is underway to comply with guidelines recently issued by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The IOC framework, however, is for guidance and has no binding power (on individual federations, ed.). It focuses on 10 principles: inclusion, prevention of harm, nondiscrimination, fairness, no presumption of advantage, evidence-based approach, priority to health and body autonomy, stakeholder-centered approach, right to privacy, and periodic reviews.

“The ITF’s Sports Science and Medicine Commission (SSMC) has begun to review the current transgender policy following the publication of the IOC transgender framework,” an ITF spokesperson wrote to UbiTennis. “The SSMC includes leading international medical and scientific representatives from the tennis world and will consider the inclusion as well as the other principles set out in the IOC transgender framework as part of its review.” Since ITF and WTA are separate organizations, they can make their own rules. This is why there is a slight difference in their eligibility criteria regarding transgender female players.

On the ITF circuit, female athletes can participate with a lower testosterone level than on the WTA Tour (5 nmol/L to 10 nmol/L). Thus, it is theoretically possible that some female players could participate in WTA events and later be excluded from the ITF circuit. However, both governing bodies tell UbiTennis that they will work together on the issue in the future. Asked about the difference in their policies regarding testosterone level, the ITF downplayed the importance of this parameter.

“The ITF remains in close communication with the WTA regarding our respective transgender policies of which the testosterone threshold is one element,” they said. “It is worth noting that the likelihood of a transgender woman’s testosterone concentration being between 5 and 10 nmol/L is very low as gender reassertion hormone therapy typically results in levels below 2 nmol/L. We will continue to work closely with the WTA as we continue to update our policy.” For its part, the WTA told UbiTennis that their approach to the issue of trans athletes is based on equity for all.

“The WTA’s priority is and continues to be to promote an environment that is fair, safe, inclusive and evidence-based,” said a spokesperson. It is unclear whether the ITF and WTA will align their rules regarding the required level of testosterone banned for trans players, but a review is underway. Neither governing body mentioned the possibility of banning transgender women from participating.