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Battle of the Sexes 40 years on: The gender equality debate in tennis

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.

About Fabrice Wilmann

Fabrice Wilmann checking in. Third year Arts student majoring in French and Literature, with aspirations of one day becoming a book editor. My main literary interests at the moment include historical novels (Hilary Mantel) and autobiographies (ranging from Sarah Palin to Rafael Nadal). I find that television is the most cathartic tool in the world, and my ever-expanding collection includes Dark Angel, Buffy, Friends, Orphan Black, and classic Simpsons (to name a few). I detest the state of Australian politics, but find solace and entertainment in our American counterparts (though this may be attributed to TV series Veep, Scandal, and Political Animals).

Fabrice Wilmann

The author Fabrice Wilmann

Fabrice Wilmann checking in. Third year Arts student majoring in French and Literature, with aspirations of one day becoming a book editor. My main literary interests at the moment include historical novels (Hilary Mantel) and autobiographies (ranging from Sarah Palin to Rafael Nadal). I find that television is the most cathartic tool in the world, and my ever-expanding collection includes Dark Angel, Buffy, Friends, Orphan Black, and classic Simpsons (to name a few). I detest the state of Australian politics, but find solace and entertainment in our American counterparts (though this may be attributed to TV series Veep, Scandal, and Political Animals).

2 Comments

  1. Poor article, with little analysis and a factual error, which reflects on the author.

    Your assertion that Hewitt and Roddick’s ascendancy in 2001-2003 (when Hewitt the US Open in 2001 and Wimbledon in 2002 and Andy Roddick won the US Open in 2003) coincides with that of Graf, Evert and Seles is absurd. Both Graf and Evert had been retired for some years, with Graf retiring three years earlier in 1999 and Evert a full decade earlier in 1989. Indeed, the women who maintained ‘a consistently high level of play’ in the early part of the new are the women you criticised in this article: the Williams sisters, with Serena capturing all four grand slam titles in finals against her sister Venus. During this period, the women’s game experienced the same golden age that men’s tennis is experiencing now with legendary figures such as Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters, Lindsay Davenport, Amélie Mauresmo, Jennifer Capriati and Justine Henin playing alongside the Williams sisters, who ushered in an era of breathtaking athleticism and power as well as a sense of sensational stardom and glamour. Whilst tennis players such as Murray and even DJokovic and Nadal struggle with recognition in the wider public (with Roger Federer being the only male tennis player to have achieved true transcendence), female tennis players such as Maria Sharapova and the William Sisters are ingrained into the fabric of pop culture.

    Your article also spends a significant portion of time talking about Venus Williams’ efforts to persuade the All England Club into providing equal prize money at Wimbledon and although pertinent to the issue, your treatment of the events adds little to the discussion as a whole. In fact, it reads very closely to Venus Williams’ wikipedia page, which outlines these events, alluding to the amateurish nature of this piece.

    In addition, it also fails to explore the fact that many tennis tournaments make the most significant part of their revenue through television and selling broadcast rights, and not ticketing sales. This is what allows tournaments such as Madrid (which you would know, if you were a true tennis fan, has near empty stadiums for much of the tournament) to exist and prosper. With this in mind, the fact that the women’s final of the US Open in 2013 had far higher viewership than the men’s final (http://www.tennis.com/pro-game/2013/09/us-open-womens-final-scores-better-tv-ratings-men/49130/#.UqWuK2QW0Wk) should be taken in consideration.)

    Instead of real analysis, I suspect that this piece seeks only to insinuate the author’s belief that women’s tennis is inherently inferior to men’s tennis. Whilst the author states at the piece’s conclusion that ‘the WTA must realise that the format of their game is the main obstacle in the acceptance of equal prize money for women’, thus framing the issue as a quantitative one (concerning the lesser amount of match time which women would provide in Grand Slam tournaments), he had earlier asserted that a series of other factors precluded women’s tennis from deserving monetary parity with its male counterpart. He states that ‘there has been no compelling rivalries’, adding that ‘spectators constantly complain of the shrieking made by Azarenka and Sharapova’ and criticises the ‘disinterested’ nature of Serena Williams despite it being a thing of the past with Serena just posting a season of excellence in 2013 with 11 titles a winning percentage of % 95.12, which compares extremely well with Djokovic’s 2011 season (widely regarded as one of the best seasons in ATP history) in which Djokovic won 1 less title and posted a winning percentage of % 92.1.

    The poorly researched, poorly written nature of this article leads me to the belief that the author seeks only to undermine the value of women’s tennis and women’s sports as a whole. I expected much better from an article that deals with an issue that touches on gender equality.

  2. It seems as though you may have misinterpreted my article because I am definitely not implying that women’s tennis is inferior to the men’s game.

    Firstly you have misunderstood my commentary on the different periods/eras of tennis and the rivalries they involve. I was not suggesting that the Hewitt/Roddick era coincided with Graf/Seles or Evert, which as you pointed out is indeed not true. I was simply providing an example of a time in men’s tennis that was regarded as comparatively weaker than others, whilst also showing that the women’s game has the potential to be extraordinary and as strong and relevant as the men’s game (as exhibited in the rivalry between Graf and Seles, or the record 80 match rivalry between Evert and Navratilova). At no point in my article did I state that the Hewitt/Roddick overlapped with Seles/Graf/Evert.

    And yes the example you provided of the four consecutive finals between the William sisters, as well as the involvement of players such as Clijsters, Henin, Hingis, etc. was also a time of high-level tennis. My decision to omit this was because I could not possibly list all the great female tennis rivalries, and I simply chose players who I believed represent the highest level of competitive rivalries. (I refer you to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_tennis_rivalries)

    Furthermore, the point you make of Sharapova and the Williams sisters being ingrained in the fabric of popular culture is also true, in my opinion. However, their legacies were cemented early on in their careers (Sharapova winning Wimbledon in 2004 as a teenager, and the four consecutive finals between Serena and Venus), and not in the past several years, which is what I am directly discussing. You state that I criticised the Williams sisters, which is not at all true. I simply pointed out that over the course of her career, Serena hasn’t been able to maintain her highest form, due to factors such as injury. One cannot simply look at the past two years of great success on her part; you have to look at her whole career (and on a side note I do think Serena has developed into one of greatest female tennis players of all time, and will continue to break/catch records in the coming years).

    And even though Serena has raised the level and success of her game to even greater heights in the last two years, I do not believe that one person can carry the entire tour. (I believe that the rivalry between the Big-Four in men’s tennis is much more exciting than the period of Federer’s unparalleled rule.) Not to mention the fact that Sharapova, Serena, and Venus have raised their profiles through other avenues (such as clothing lines, Sugarpova, acting and so on).

    I have pointed to several factors that are challenging the women’s tour in the current climate of tennis not to contribute to the idea that they do not deserve equal prize money, but rather as factors that inhibit their worth as athletes in the eyes of the public. For instance, tennis commentators consistently discuss how the shrieking of Sharapova and Azarenka is encumbering both to their opponents and to fans. Nowhere in my article did I suggest that this constitutes grounds for depriving women of equal prize money.

    The point you make about television ratings and broadcasting is well made, however I do briefly mention this in the quote by Roddick. The fact of the matter is even in this category men’s matches, on average, outweigh that of their female counterparts. The example you provided seems to be an outlier in this field, which may be attributed to the fact that it involved Serena Williams, an American playing on home soil. “The 4.9 rating was also the highest for any U.S. Open final since Roger Federer beat Andy Roddick in 2006 (5.1)”; which unsurprisingly was the last time an American man featured in the U.S. men’s final.

    I am sorry if you have mistakenly read this article as an attack on the women’s game, but it is not that at all. I stand by my conclusion that the main obstacle standing in the way of equality in the eyes of the public is the format of the women’s tour. I believe that it is quite possible that the standard of women’s tennis may reach, or even surpass that, of the men’s game if these changes are made.

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