Last month, Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal became the 2013 champions of the U.S. Open Grand Slam tournament. For winning the U.S. Open Series, the two players each received $3.6 million – the record for the largest prize money paycheck for a single tennis tournament. Even though Serena may be one of the greatest champions of the sport, this parity in prize money is unjust because, put simply, the women’s tour at this moment in time is inferior to the men’s tour.
The issue of equal prize money in the sport of tennis has been the subject of debate for decades. Whilst women have enjoyed equal prize money across all four grand slams since 2007, recent criticism of this equality has been building within the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the wider tennis audience.
The subject was brought into the spotlight at last year’s Wimbledon tournament when French player Gilles Simon, who sits on the ATP council alongside Roger Federer, stated that women’s tennis was not as entertaining as the male equivalent. In addition, Simon argued that this view was representative of the entire men’s tour: “It’s not only my point of view, it’s the point of view of everybody in the locker room.”
Earlier this year at the Australian Open, Simon’s compatriot Jo-Wilfred Tsonga expressed his views on the topic of gender equality, sparking serious backlash from his female counterparts. He expressed his belief that “the girls, they are more unstable emotionally than us… it’s just about hormones and all this stuff. We don’t have all these bad things, so we are physically in a good shape every time, and you are not. That’s it.” Tsonga’s comments are evidently sexist in nature, and fail to grasp the crux of the equality debate.
Whilst Simon’s view that “men’s tennis is ahead of women’s tennis” is a re-emerging view in the gender debate, the main point of contention of gender equality is that at the Grand Slam level, women do not play best-of-five-set matches. At the lower levels of the sport, both men and women play best-of-three set matches, and in these instances, equal prize money is warranted. The debate, therefore, is not about gender at all, but rather the differences in structure of the men’s and women’s tours.
Two-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray recently reiterated this view, proposing that women should play for the same number of sets as men if they are to receive equal prize money. Murray astutely recognised that at one point in time, women did play for the same duration as men: “Steffi Graf and [Martina] Navratilova and those players were unbelievable over five sets, and in great shape. So it’s not that. That isn’t the issue.” The final of the WTA Tour Championships was a best-of-five-set match between 1984 and 1998 before reverting to best-of-three, though only three matches went the distance.
This highly contentious debate has resurfaced at the most inopportune time for the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), as they are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ and the advent of equal prize money for women at the U.S. Open.
The Battle of the Sexes was the title given to a series of matches between male and female tennis players in 1973. American Grand Slam champion Bobby Riggs began this series of contests when he challenged Billie Jean King to a match, claiming that the women’s game was inferior and that even at the age of 55, he could beat one of the best women’s players of that time. After King initially declined, world number #1 Margaret Court faced off against Riggs instead, losing in two sets. Four months later however, King accepted Riggs challenge and defeated him in straight sets (best-of-five format), resulting in the U.S. Open becoming the first Grand Slam to offer equal prize money. The Australian Open and French Open followed suit in 1984 and 2006 respectively.
King’s win, whilst historic, and a crucial proponent in acquiring equal money for female tennis players, drew significant criticism, much of which was based on the age of the players, King being 26 years younger than Riggs at the time. Furthermore, many people speculated that Riggs threw the match, taking advantage of the overwhelming odds against King to settle his debt to the mob.
Several other ‘battles of the sexes’ took place throughout the decades, the most notable of which included the Williams sisters. During the 1998 Australian Open, 203rd ranked male player Karsten Braasch challenged Venus and Serena, who were 17 and 16 years of age at the time respectively, after the sisters had claimed they could beat any male player ranked above 200. Braasch overwhelmed the sisters by a score of 6-2 against Venus, and 6-1 against Serena.
The obvious disparities between the men’s and women’s game, namely speed and power, continued to inhibit equal prize money being offered across all four Grand Slams. Despite years of protesting by Billie Jean King and other prominent female players, Wimbledon continued to deny equal pay for female players. The turning point came in 2006 when Venus Williams published an essay in The Times in which she accused Wimbledon of “being on the wrong side of history.”
A notable part of her essay included an acknowledgment that women “would be happy to play five-set matches in Grand Slam tournaments”, though this has obviously not come to fruition. Venus Williams also recognised the uniqueness of the sport of tennis: “No other sport has men and women competing for a grand slam championship on the same stage, at the same time. So in the eyes of the general public the men’s and women’s games have the same value.”
In response to Venus’ cry for equality, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and members of parliament endorsed her arguments, ultimately leading to the equal pay for female tennis players at Wimbledon. Described as the ‘single factor’ that resulted in this momentous change, Venus would then go on to become the first benefactor of this equalisation of prize money at Wimbledon, receiving the same amount as men’s champion Roger Federer.
Another point discussed by the seven-time Grand Slam champion in her essay is one that has been challenged by many leading male players. Williams pronounced that women “enjoy huge and equal celebrity and are paid for the value we deliver to broadcasters and spectators, not the amount of time we spend on the stage.” It is often argued that men’s tennis attracts the most spectators. Tickets to men’s finals, for example, cost more than tickets to the women’s final at Wimbledon.
Many detractors from equal pay often speculate that if the WTA were to organise their own grand slams, separate from the men’s tour, they would fail to raise the same amount of revenue as the ATP. As it stands, female tennis players benefit from the revenue brought in by male tennis players.
Andy Roddick stressed that gender issues should not be at the centre of the debate; rather, he argued that tennis should be approached from the point of view of a business. “I’m sure there’s a way to figure out who people are coming to watch,” Roddick said. “There’s TV ratings to look at. I’m sure there are ample numbers out there to dissect. As any business goes, you look at those numbers and then decide where it goes from there.”
Currently, men’s tennis is experiencing a ‘Golden Era’ of accomplished players and enticing rivalries. The ‘Big Four’, made up of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, are consistently successful at the Grand Slams, and their hard-fought battles often define Grand Slams (Nadal and Djokovic’s almost six-hour slugfest at the 2012 Australian Open is widely regarded as one of the greatest finals of all time).
However, the same cannot be said for women’s tennis. Even Serena Williams, who recently won her 17th Grand Slam title and is regarded as the best female tennis player of our generation, has been unable to maintain a consistent level of success throughout the course of her career, though this can be attributed to injury, family tragedy, and a lack of interest in her earlier years. There have been several one-Slam wonders over the past few years (Ivanovic, Kvitova and Bartoli to name a few), as well as players who reached the top of the rankings without winning a Grand Slam (Safina, Wozniacki and Jankovic). Spectators constantly complain of the shrieking made by Azarenka and Sharapova and the encumbering grunting of Errani and Schiavone. More importantly, there have been no compelling rivalries to keep audiences interested.
This is only a representation of the current state of tennis however. Men’s tennis was regarded as particularly weak and uninteresting in the period helmed by Hewitt and Roddick, whereas women’s tennis enjoyed several periods of enticing rivalries (involving Graf, Evert, and Seles) in which a consistently high level of play was maintained.
This shows that women’s tennis is capable of catching the attention of tennis audiences around the world. The emergence of the ‘Big Three’ in women’s tennis (Serena, Azarenka, and Sharapova) is definitely a step in the right direction. As a result of the enthralling five set showdowns between the ‘Big Four’ in men’s tennis, however, competitive rivalries will not be able to shine as brightly in a best-of-three sets format, even if stability at the top is established.
The WTA must realise that the format of their game is the main obstacle in the acceptance of equal prize money for women. By slowly integrating the best-of-five sets format into Grand Slams (first in finals, then filtered down), women’s tennis will not only begin to rival their male counterparts, but they will also raise the overall level and appeal of their sport.