WIMBLEDON, England – All sorts of requests reach the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, via all sorts of methods, but rarely does a meaningful entreaty come via LinkedIn message. That, though, is how Micky Lawler, the president of the WTA women’s professional tennis tour, first reached out to the group about a partnership during a sleepless pandemic night.
Eventually, the idea made its way to foundation co-chair Melinda French Gates. The origin was unusual. The thought of working together with the sport was appealing.
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“I thought, ‘God, what better?’ I mean, I’m always looking for female women gender champions, because I know the difference they make for young girls,” French Gates told The Associated Press at Wimbledon on Friday, when she attended the Grand Slam tournament for the first time. “I know the difference when they call on a government. I know when they have a link to a first lady in a country, something happens.”
And so the WTA and the foundation are going to work together to raise awareness about — and money for — women’s health and nutrition around the world. They also will coordinate efforts to promote gender equality and female leadership.
French Gates, Lawler and 10 former players, including past Wimbledon champions Billie Jean King and Marion Bartoli, took the first concrete step toward that collaboration during a roundtable meeting for about an hour Friday at the All England Club boardroom in the Centre Court stadium.
“We know that these athletes are at top of their game. They’re role models, they’re leaders and they can speak to these issues because they know them,” said French Gates, who said the foundation has not previously partnered with a women’s sports league.
“I just know place after place is better when we are moving toward gender equality. There’s nowhere in the world where we yet have it. But what I know is that so many young girls look up to female role models. And so who do they look for? They look for women in business, they look for women in entertainment, they look for women in sport,” she said. “And so when this partnership started to come about, and Micky had this idea, she said, ‘Who better to know the importance of nutrition than our athletes, right?’”
In August 2020, during the WTA’s first tournament after a COVID-19 hiatus, Lawler found herself unable to get some shut-eye in her Lexington, Kentucky, hotel room. Her concerns: “Are we doing the right thing? Are we coming back too soon?”
She had been struck by seeing a Netflix documentary about Bill Gates and, she said Friday, “It was Melinda’s brain that I was very interested in.”
Lawler attempted to connect to the foundation; her initial thought was becoming something real she thinks current players will support. Lawler planned to introduce French Gates to Wimbledon finalist Ons Jabeur — a 27-year-old from Tunisia who is the first African woman and first Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam title match — on Friday afternoon.
“We are a global organization, and we have so many passionate women who really want to make an impact in their lifetime,” Lawler said during a joint interview with French Gates. “It goes way beyond the dollar figures. We feel that if we make big things happen, the funding will come and will grow exponentially, because our partners will want to be a part of this.”
Asked for an example of how current athletes potentially could help, French Gates mentioned the Women Deliver Conference about gender equality in July 2023 at Kigali, Rwanda.
“We could have tennis players highlighting on their social media channels the importance of these women’s health issues, some of them potentially showing up on stage to help highlight the issues,” she said, “and calling on their own governments, saying, ‘I want our government to step up and put more money into’ whatever the issue is — maternal mortality, reproductive health.”