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An Introduction to the Equal Pay Debate in Tennis

Serena Williams

The Equal pay debate in tennis is brought up regularly, but it’s not as simple as some make out.

While those betting on tennis at online sportsbooks can earn equally on men’s and women’s tennis, it’s not always the case for players themselves. There are many tournaments worldwide where female players earn less prize money that their male counterparts. The most high profile events, the Grand Slams, provide equality in terms of prize money (if not always equality for court selection and media coverage) but this is questioned almost every Grand Slam.

It took a battle to even reach this far. The Slams took different routes to equality: Billie Jean King led a player’s revolt in 1973 in a successful attempt to for the US Open to pay players equally. However, the most prestigious event in the tennis calendar, Wimbledon, only began rewarding women with the same prize money in 2007.

Why is the equal pay debate in tennis such an issue?

While nowadays the equal pay debate in tennis is often used as an easy headline generator if a tournament hasn’t been too exciting, players and tournament organisers still feel strongly about the issue. Quite naturally, women seek to be paid the same as men: they too devote their lives to the sport. While there is a factor of prestige – whereby being paid less can imply you are inferior – for those outside the top echelons equal pay can be the difference between a successful career and a struggle to even travel to tournaments.

Billie Jean King

Billie Jean King fought for equal pay (Photo: Makers)

On the other side of the debate, tournament organisers are naturally reticent to pay players anything less than they consider “market value”. While Grand Slams are rich and can easily afford to pay equal prize money – not to mention the fact that paying women equally is not a good look when running a massive event a partial goal of which is to inspire all kinds of people to play and watch the sport – smaller tournaments do have tough decisions to make. Many tournaments use prize money to attract big-name players, the kind that dominate the front pages of online sportsbooks in the UK, and (they claim) equal pay limits how much they can spend on the highest-profile men’s players.

They argue that in many cases equal pay is simply an unaffordable subsidy for the women’s game, requiring tournaments to pay women more than they recoup in advertising and broadcasting revenue. The solution for some has been to host single-gendered tournament, giving organisers the freedom more control over prize-money.

Beyond mere economics, there are several other often-heard arguments that women “deserve” less money. Some say that women are visibly inferior, particularly physically, to their male counterparts. While undeniable that many male tennis players could beat top female players in a race or a physical fight, this is not a particularly persuasive argument. The boring serve-dominated tactics of tall and strong men may be effective, but requires less technical talent and provides considerably less interesting viewing than the intelligent and varied game of, for instance, Agnieszka Radwańska, whose weaker frame only makes her sublime touch and inventive game-play more remarkable to watch.

Perhaps the most prevalent argument equal pay is that women work less hard, having to play only three sets. This is an argument often espoused by passive fans, who don’t realise that even the men only play five set matches in slams and a few selected other tournaments. The bigger irony is that the women’s tour has frequently requested to play five set matches in slams, but the interests of tournament organisers and television companies have prevented this from happening. With slam schedules already packed, there’s no space to add more sets to the women’s schedules, particularly in tournaments at the mercy of the weather. There are actually calls for men to only three sets, at least until the latter stages of tournaments: often five set met matches can be incredibly boring to watch.

However, that women have been prevented from playing five set matches has likely lead to the misleading idea that women’s matches are less competitive or that female’s are less fit. To argue against the latter, when men are required to play five sets they frequently suffer injury or fatigue. More problematic is that – like we saw in the men’s quarter finals at Wimbledon – often the most exciting men’s matches are comebacks (successful or otherwise) from two sets down. In a women’s match two sets is sufficient, so potentially intriguing matches finish prematurely in terms of drama.

Novak Djokovic Raymond Moore

Djokovic and Moore both made controversial comments (Photo: Heavy)

There is the added factor of Serena William truly being incredibly dominant, not dissimilarly to Federer a decade ago or Djokovic nowadays. The era of the “Big Four” gave the impression that men’s tennis was more competitive, but it’s really just a case of dominance being split among several players. In Serena had just one rival of equal standing, things would be very different.

What is the future for the equal pay debate in tennis?

While the equal pay debate in tennis does arise regularly – particularly in the British tennis press, famed for their preference for drama over – it doesn’t seem likely that Grand Slams would soon consider reneging on their previous commitments to equal pay. A more troubling note was Raymond Moore – organiser of Indian Wells Masters tournament, often considered the “fifth slam” – who chose the occasion of the 2015 women’s trophy ceremony to argue that women were lucky to benefit from the success of the men’s tour. However, his comments were deemed unacceptable and he was forced to resign: he was a powerful figure in the tennis world and his treatment by the media is indicative of how secure equal pay is nowadays. Controversially, Novak Djokovic responded to the incident by noting that since men’s tennis has more spectators, they deserve more remuneration. However, despite being the most prominent player in tennis, there doesn’t appear to be much momentum towards the idea of paying men more.

A more likely scenario is that men will begin playing fewer sets. If you bet on sports in the US, you’ll know that there is a fifth set tiebreak in the US Open, meaning that unlike some slams there cannot be an infinite length to matches. The regular monotony of five-set matches in Slams could result in the five-set format being reserved only for later rounds. Just possibly, that could free up space in the schedule for women’s slam matches to also be best-of-five: that would surely be an important, if unlikely, step for the equal pay debate in tennis.

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