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Tennis’s Pay Gap: Why Don’t Women Earn As Much As Men?

As we enter Wimbledon’s second week, there is – as ever – much talk of whoever might beat Serena Williams to win the Grand Slam title. Should the American player, who has dominated the game for years, win her 22nd Grand Slam title, then she will be able to win just as much prize money as her male counterpart. However, it’s only been seven years since this was an achievable goal. Up until 2006, women winners at Wimbledon received less money than their male peers. The British Grand Slam was relatively slow in offering equal prize money; 33 years prior, in 1973, Billie Jean King had threatened a boycott of the US Open, forcing organisers to offer women as much prize money as men. It took 28 years for any other Grand Slam tournament – the Australian Open – to make a commitment to equal pay. And still, despite competitions’ eventual commitment to equal pay, men still out-earn women. Let’s take the top seeded players: Djokovic earned $67 million from 1st June 2014 to 1st June 2015, thanks not only to prize money, but also endorsements, appearances and exhibitions. Meanwhile, Williams earned $24.6 million.

How did this come about? There are differing schools of thought that serve to keep women in a lower pay bracket. The first, most obvious argument against payment equality is that women only play three sets in tennis whereas men will play five or more. Venus Williams put this myth to bed in 2015 when she wrote: “for the record, the ladies’ final at Wimbledon in 2005 lasted 45 minutes longer than the men’s. No extra charge.” Meanwhile, Tom Fordyce, chief BBC sports writer for Wimbledon has posited that if sports players were only rewarded based on the time they took while competing: “Usain Bolt will have to be satisfied with a fraction of the earnings of a marathon runner.” Indeed, no tennis player, regardless of their gender, spends any less time training or maintaining their power or skills for competition, so why should anyone be paid differently on the basis of time spent competing?

The other argument can be summarised via the comments of two men working high up in tennis. In March 2016, Raymond Moore, CEO of Indian Wells Tennis Garden said of the Women’s Tennis Association: “I think the WTA—you know, in my next life when I come back I want to be someone in the WTA, because they ride on coattails of the men. They don’t make any decisions and they are lucky. They are very, very lucky.”

He also said that: “If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport. They really have.”

Then there’s Grand Slam men’s winner Djokovic. In March 2016 he said that women should try hard to get paid, but men should try hard to get paid more, because: “the stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men’s tennis matches. I think that’s one of the reasons why maybe we should get awarded more. Women should fight for what they think they deserve and we should fight for what we think we deserve.”

One argument might sound less abrasive than the other, but the sentiment matches; according to both men, women don’t attract as many spectators to the sport so don’t deserve the same money. However, on top of her sporting prowess, Serena Williams has become master of the swift and polite put-down. When asked to comment on Raymond Moore’s remarks, she said: “Obviously I don’t think any woman should be down on their knee thanking anybody like that. If I could tell you every day how many people say they don’t watch tennis unless they’re watching myself or my sister, I couldn’t even bring up that number. So I don’t think that is a very accurate statement. I think there is a lot of women out there who are more — are very exciting to watch. I think there are a lot of men out there who are exciting to watch. I think it definitely goes both ways. I think those remarks are very much mistaken and very, very, very inaccurate.”

As for Djokovic’s comments, Williams retorted, simply: “Last year the women's final at the US Open sold out well before the men.”  Tennis isn’t enjoyed only by those with the money or the contacts to access Centre Court, it’s watched by millions of people across the world, via television. At present, viewing figures are unequal. Last year’s Wimbledon women’s final was watched by 4.3 million people, while the men’s drew 9.2 million viewers. Is this because people genuinely don’t enjoy women’s tennis as much as men’s, or because men’s tennis is trailed more heavily, with more emphasis put on the Djokovics and the Federers than the Williamses and the Muguruzas? Could it be because we have become accustomed to judging women’s sport through a judgmental lens? As Fordyce put it: “Serena's dominance of the women's game is frequently described as boring when Djokovic's supremacy on the men's tour is breathtaking … a series of broken service games in men's tennis is likely to be depicted as a thrilling, see-saw contest while in a women's match it's often blamed on mental flakiness or physical inability.”

On top of this, not only do women have to achieve excellence in their sporting performance, but they must also adhere to sexual standards imposed by viewers, sponsors and even commentators. As recently as 2014, BBC commentator John Inverdale faced censure for saying that Marion Bartoli wasn’t enough of “a looker” so needed to “compensate for that” – that being her lack of “long legs” and unlikely chances of being “a Sharapova”. Only last year, the New York Times ran a piece suggesting that more women could be as powerful as Serena, but didn’t want to sacrifice their femininity to get there.

Before losing some of her sponsorship contracts following a doping scandal, Russian player Maria Sharapova was out-earning Williams by $5 million a year. Her win at the banks was despite consistently losing on the court to Williams (Sharapova beat her in only one game out of 14), because, as Marc Bain put it in The Atlantic: “It’s likely because she’s willowy, white, and blonde, while Williams is a black woman with prominent, athletic muscles — as is often pointed out, sometimes disparagingly.”

The pay gap in tennis tournaments might be shortening, but unless equal prize money from Grand Slam tournaments is matched with a commitment to change attitudes that suggest women’s bodies are less effective, then earning potential will continue to be based on your gender or attractiveness. 

NEXT: Get to Know Serena Williams »

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Photo Credit: Adam Pretty/Getty Images