WTA must take a lead in equality row

The Mixed Zone’s editor Sue Mott throws her two-penn’orth into the raging debate about equal pay in tennis. And she says Serena Williams’s fellow female players should be standing up to be counted in the fight for equality, in sport and in society

This isn’t the first time. Far from it. And, frankly, we must be grateful (please, though, not on your knees) that Novak Djokovic expressed himself against the notion of equal prize money with a modicum of tact. Dutch tennis player, Richard Krajicek, did no such thing back in 1992, when he opined at Wimbledon that eighty per cent of female players were “fat, lazy pigs”.

That, of course, precipitated outrage and – the British press being what it was – an excuse to photograph female tennis players’ backsides. I well remember the containment in stretchy knickers of one female player’s rear end – and, God, I hope she wasn’t named – being described as resembling a string bag overloaded with shopping. PC hadn’t been invented. Cruelty, if deemed funny, was tolerated. Admired even.

So this latest row – in context – is a sequel to long-simmering resentments, injustices and misunderstandings between the sexes in tennis that go back a long, long way.

For those in the – let’s call it – the Djoker camp, which includes men and women, it may be important to remember that there won’t always be Rafa Nadal’s biceps and Roger Federer’s chunky cardigans to illumine the sport. The day may dawn again when a Sampras-like figure plays a Courier in a Wimbledon final, precipitating a general stampede for the Pimm’s tent. This is not to knock Sampras, the seven-time Wimbledon champion. His eyebrows were eloquent, at any rate. He just had a repetitive serve and volley game – brilliant in and of itself – but unaccompanied by much charisma. As for Courier, even he read books during change-overs to relieve the tedium.

But the year of their final, 1993, was saved by the poignant story of Steffi Graf beating Jana Novotna who cried on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent after her defeat. Three years before Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg played an intriguing five-setter to decide the title, but in terms of picturesqueness and significance the unrivalled star was Martina Navratilova winning her ninth (and final) Wimbledon title. Equal prize money was not paid in those days. Even in making history, Navratilova was paid less than her male counterpart.

Djokovic is concerned about justice. The commercial justice of being paid what he – and the men’s game – is apparently worth to his sport. He is thinking sponsors, ticket prices, bums on seats. In cold, hard, current and currency terms, he’s right. Generally speaking, the men’s game is more exciting than the women’s with a greater number of recognisable stars at its zenith. At the moment. And with plenty of exceptions when a great women’s match unfolds on court.

The Martina camp on the other hand, is concerned about a different sort of justice altogether. Perhaps it’s too high-falutin’ to call it social justice, but undoubtedly the view of those who support equal pay take in a sweep of culture, tradition and centuries of undervaluing women that utterly eludes the Djoker analysis.

The “Martinas” believe equal pay is a symbol of women mattering – equally. In sport, in life. In fact, sport is the microcosm here, the proving ground, the example that life all too infrequently follows. It is a telling coincidence that as the controversy raged a Treasury-commissioned report led by Jayne-Anne Gadhia, CEO of Virgin Money, was published revealing that women made up only 14 per cent of financial company executive committees. That women face problems getting to the top of managerial ladders remains a live and pertinent 21st-century issue.

So here’s an opportunity for tennis. To be a model for society or, failing that, to shut up about prize money when the top players are all multi-millionaires anyway. The male player ranked 20th in the world, Bernard Tomic, has earned just shy of $4 million in prize money alone at the age of 23. That’s pretty good. Most Olympians and Paralympians preparing for Rio have earned £0.00 in glittering prizes.

Djokovic – with $100 million in career prize money and probably twice, thrice, that in endorsements – may be acting as shop steward on behalf of his fellow man, as it were, but it still seems unedifying to moan about the division of profits when he’s up there in earnings with oligarchs and bankers.

Furthermore, the fact that he earned £1.88 million as Wimbledon champion last year – as did Serena Williams – owes a great deal to all those players of either who have gone before. Modern Wimbledon evolved as much from the exploits of Lottie Dod (who had to play in a long frilly dress, poor soul), Suzanne Lenglen, Margaret Court, Virginia Wade, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Evonne Goolagong … as it did from a similar roll call of male stars.

The same goes for all the grand slams. Without the input of women, Wimbledon would be half the event. Actually less. Women and men together, sometimes on the same doubles court, is the alchemy that has made tennis the lucrative global sport it is today.

It would be helpful if the Women’s Tennis Association poured more thought and resource into the promotion of their players below the top … one. Serena Williams has grown into the role of social pioneer and sporting champion with authority and finesse, but there is small sign of her fellow female players stepping up behind her. There is precious little clamour from women’s tennis either to play five sets (perhaps from the quarters onwards) at combined events. There should be. Women as “the weaker sex” is so last century. Actually, the century before that.

The WTA are not doing themselves any favours. But at the heart of the argument is equality. Something Andy Murray understands perfectly. “Men’s tennis has been lucky over the last nine or 10 years with the players they’ve had, the rivalries which have come out of that. That’s great but the whole of tennis should capitalise on that – not just the men’s game.

“I think there should be equal pay, 100 per cent, at all combined events.”

End of argument.

Or maybe not.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles

 

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