For Alison van Uytvanck and Greet Minnen, two female Belgian tennis players who are engaged as of last year, the message is clear: It’s just normal. Plain old. Simple. Love.
Three years ago, headline writers were sent into a frenzy when they shared a kiss at Wimbledon: ‘Game, set, kiss.’ ‘Belgian tennis couple blazing a trail for LGBT community.’ ‘A kiss against homophobia.’
Here was an important moment for the LGBT+ community, particularly within sport. A chance for an underrepresented and traditionally marginalised group to be heard – or, rather, seen (even if that wasn’t their intention, more on that later).
But actually societal normalcy is – and already should be – the end game.
This is, after all, just a typical couple.
‘Greet is very stubborn,’ Van Uytvanck says when the pair are asked to describe their relationship.
Minnen, the younger of the two, cuts through the fits of laughter: ‘Alison is the one who is really managing everything, taking care of everything. If we want to go on holiday she books everything, she’ll make sure we’re in a good hotel and buy the tickets. She’s really good at that.’
She pauses for a moment before giggling: ‘She’s also paying the bills. I’m really bad at those things, she helps me out a lot.’
‘Greet is more living in the moment,’ smiles Van Uytvanck, pausing for reflection. ‘Which is nice. It’s really nice to get those balanced things.’
Professionally, the pair plot their respective schedules together, share a coach – they’ve promised to find out who is ‘more easy’ to work with – and regularly team up in doubles.
Competing with your partner can surely be strenuous? ‘No,’ says Minnen. ‘We do argue sometimes but it’s never long.
‘She’s the one who understands everything. I can just be myself. If I miss, it’s okay. We’ll never be mad. It’s nice to play with each other. I think it’s even easier to play with her than anyone else because she knows me the best and how I feel on court. She’ll always be supportive.’
Far worse, they say, was the only match they’ve had to face each other to date at the Karlsruhe Open in Germany.
‘That was the worst match of my life probably,’ says Minnen. ‘Feeling on court like you’re playing your girlfriend. Playing almost the most important person…’
Van Uytvanck quickly interrupts: ‘Almost?!’
Minnen corrects herself amid the laughter: ‘The most important person in the world. It was tough, really tough. But we managed. Its just a tennis match. Whoever wins you forget about it 10 minutes later so it’s fine. There are worse things in the world.’
Having struck up a romantic relationship during an IMG practice week five-and-a-half years ago, they are now set to embark on the next step of their lives together.
Minnen proposed to Van Uytvanck. She sent her fiancée out to walk the dog, prepared their home, put on their favourite song by Irish rock band The Script and got down on one knee.
They will get married in Belgium next July and – like many other couples hoping to tie the knot in the near future – are hoping the coronavirus pandemic will have subsided to the point that they can enjoy a ‘bigger party’ than is possible now.
No doubt there will be wider interest in their big day. Their famous Wimbledon kiss, in which Van Uytvanck sought out her partner after taking out defending champion Garbine Muguruza in the second round, went viral.
‘We were really surprised,’ Minnen says of the reaction. ‘When we got back in the hotel we saw Twitter was going crazy. We had so many people following us and retweeting this kiss and everything. For us it was a really big surprise. We didn’t even know there was a picture from it.’
‘It was just in the moment,’ Van Uytvanck adds. ‘I won the match and I just wanted to share that moment with her. You don’t think about it. It was kind of big afterwards but at that time I was just doing what I wanted to do and to share it with her, the most important people in my life.’
Barring the odd troll on social media, the response was overwhelmingly positive. The couple by then, however, were uninterested in the views of the wider world.
‘You’re always scared how the people closest to you will react,’ says Van Uytvanck. ‘I think it’s always tough. Her dad needed a little bit more time to adjust. It’s okay. Now he’s fine.
‘I think to the world we were never scared to come out. The most important thing was our family and friends were cool with that. After that, we didn’t think about it, we just went with the flow and hold each other’s hands when we wanted to. That’s nice.’
They have never encountered any homophobia in the locker room, either. ‘I can say the players we know the best are for sure really positive,’ says Van Uytvanck. ‘From the other ones, we didn’t get any negative reactions either.’
‘I don’t think it’s weird at all or anything like that,’ adds Minnen. ‘I think that’s the best support you can get, that they’re just acting normal.’
Given the normality of the situation, is it somewhat weird we’re having this conversation? ‘Yeah, we get asked these questions a lot,’ laughs Minnen. ‘For us, it’s always the same answers.
‘We cannot say any bad words about any other players or WTA (Women’s Tennis Association). They’ve been really supportive. They treat us like we’re everyone else. That’s how it should be.’
Sure enough, several of their high-profile WTA co-stars were keen to stand up as allies.
‘I have been incredibly embraced by the LGBTQ+ community,’ says American ace Madison Keys as part of the WTA’s Pride campaign.
‘I think the biggest thing is that I love the ability to just be yourself and be true to yourself and the whole community has to be so true to themselves, even in the face of people who disagree with whatever they’re saying. The fact that they can stay true to themselves through all of that adversity is so inspiring.’
Ash Barty, the world No. 1 from Australia, adds: ‘I think I’ve been very fortunate to have an amazing group of friends and family who have been able to share their experiences with me and I’ve been so open with them. I mean just being able to connect with people is massively important, regardless of the walk of life you come from.’
‘My hairdresser when I do shoots in LA, he’s from the LGBTQ community and he is one of my favorite people in the world,’ beams Naomi Osaka, the world No. 2 from Japan. ‘He’s always so bright and happy, just so confident in himself and I really love that.
‘There’s only one you. Like you’re the only you… I started to sleep better at night when I was more myself and I wasn’t trying to please other people. So, I think that’s the way that I took it. And if that can help anyone else, then they should also try to embrace themselves a little bit.’
The women’s game has always seemed more receptive to those from the LGBT+ community. Some of its most trailblazing stars, such as Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King, are openly gay.
But there are no active gay players in the men’s game and to date only Brian Vahaly, the former world No. 64 from the US, has come out.
‘You see the difference. It’s clear,’ says Van Uytvanck. ‘I think it’s maybe more difficult to come out as a male athlete.
‘There should be a change. We need someone to be – I don’t think like in 1000s of players it’s possible there isn’t a gay person, in my opinion. You need to be brave.
‘We need a role model in the men’s side as well. I hope it might come maybe sooner, maybe later. Who knows. I think someone needs to come out. If they feel appreciated then that might change the whole view of it.’
Van Uytvanck and Minnen hope they are living proof that coming out in the sporting sphere shouldn’t feel daunting, rather, it should be liberating.
‘You have to feel happy,’ says Minnen. ‘That’s the only thing I can say. Be the person who you are.
‘Don’t be ashamed if you’re gay or something like that. You’re not sick, you just have feelings for the same gender, which is okay. Just try to be yourself and tell your parents. They will still love you, no matter if you’re gay or not. That’s my opinion.’
Indeed, Van Uytvanck and Minnen are well placed to speak from experience. They are living the totally normal life they’re supposed to lead. And are all the happier for it.
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