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Australian Open women's tennis storm erupts as Basil Zempilas rejects 'sexism' claims

The former TV sports presenter has explained what he really meant after copping plenty of backlash.

Basil Zempilas, pictured here alongside the Australian Open women's finalists.
Basil Zempilas speaking about the Australian Open women's final. Image: Getty/X

Perth Lord Mayor Basil Zempilas insists his comment about the Australian Open women's tennis final on Saturday was misconstrued, amid ugly backlash on social media. Zempilas - who spent the best part of three decades in broadcasting as a long-time sports presenter at Channel Seven - was caught up in a 'hot mic' moment before an interview that has been savaged by viewers online.

Zempilas was getting ready to front a press conference on Saturday to speak about his plans with the Liberal Party in Western Australia and decision to seek preselection for a seat in state politics. He didn't seem to realise his microphone was on when he asked Channel Nine reporter Michael Genovese a question about the women's Australian Open final between defending champion Aryna Sabalenka and China's Qinwen Zheng.

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“Tennis is on tonight, isn’t it?” Zempilas can be heard asking in the clip posted to social media. Genovese replies, “Ah, yeah, the female final", before Zampilas responds by saying: “It’s a reserves game, then.”

The Perth Lord Mayor then attempts to clarify the comment by adding: “I say that having been there obviously”. Zempilas was no doubt referring to his time working as a sports presenter with Channel Seven, who owned the free-to-air rights for the Australian Open for years before the Nine Network took over.

Basil Zempilas is seen here speaking at a Perth Scorchers fan day. Pic: Getty
Basil Zempilas is seen here speaking at a Perth Scorchers fan day. Pic: Getty

Basil Zempilas says comment 'reported totally incorrectly'

Before Zempilas can continue speaking, he seems to be informed that his microphone is on and the press conference is about to get underway. “OK, all right,” he says after appearing to look awkwardly at the camera.

The clip sent social media into a frenzy as fans accused the Perth Lord Mayor of denigrating women's tennis, but Zempilas has insisted that was not what he meant to do after releasing a statement in the wake of the uproar. According to Zempilas, he was referring to the fact that Genovese was reading the news on Channel 9 that night, which would be the 'reserves game' because everyone would be watching the tennis.

Aryna Sabalenka and Qinwen Zheng, pictured here at the Australian Open.
Aryna Sabalenka (R) beat Qinwen Zheng (L) in the Australian Open women's final. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images) (Julian Finney via Getty Images)

"I need to make absolutely clear the conversation I had with @9NewsPerth reporter @GenoveseMichael today is being reported totally incorrectly," Zempilas wrote in a post on X. "Before today's press conference Michael and I were talking about how presenting the news when a big sporting event is on at the same time means a small audience will watch the news.

"I then say to Michael words to the effect 'are you reading the news tonight?'. He says 'yes' and I say 'the tennis is on tonight isn't it?'. He then says 'the women's final'. And I then say referring to reading the news against that broadcast 'it's like the reserves then'.

"Reading the news against the tennis was what I was referring to as 'being the reserves'. Not the tennis. I can not make that any clearer or be any more emphatic. It is totally disingenuous and flat out wrong to suggest otherwise and I will not be accused of having said something I did not say. I am certain Michael will verify this."

Zempilas later posted video of the full exchange with Genovese, which appears to back-up his version of events. Genovese also corroborated Zempilas' claim that the conversation had been misconstrued.

Aryna Sabalenka wins back-to-back Australian Open titles

Despite the insistence from Zempilas that his comments were in no way meant to be offensive or dismissive of women's tennis, many weren't buying the explanation. The 52-year-old father-of-three - including two daughters - was accused by many of being "sexist" in what can only be described as a public relations disaster for the Perth Lord Mayor.

The controversy overshadowed the build-up to Saturday night's Australian Open final at Melbourne Park, in which Sabalenka proved too good for Zgeng in a 6-3 6-2 thrashing. She is the first female player to win back-to-back Australian Open titles since fellow Belarusian Victoria Azarenka in 2012 and 2013.

The World No.2 broke Zheng three times without dropping her own serve once. She joins Ash Barty (2022), Serena Williams (2017), Maria Sharapova (2008) and Lindsay Davenport (2000) as just the fifth woman this century to lift the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup without dropping a set all tournament.

with AAP

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