‘Tennis taught me so many lessons in life.’
– Billie Jean King
I’m a huge tennis fan, and I have been for years. I first went to Wimbledon in 2000 and have been every year since 2011. I rarely jump to anger as quickly as when someone tells me they don’t like Andy Murray because his tennis is boring or he isn’t actually that good or because of that old joke about not supporting England. This year, we are attending three different tournaments and I have big plans to go to many more. My phone is full of slo-mo videos of impressive serves and hundreds of photos of tennis players at such great distances that it’s difficult to tell who is who…
Except that the first photo I have of a female player is Serena Williams in 2016.
And, if I’m honest, I didn’t really follow the women’s game seriously until the last three years. I just didn’t know who they were. Other than that Williams sisters, the women players were a succession of blonde, tanned women who sort of merged into one. They never really made the headlines, there weren’t as many superstars and their matches were never on TV. The women’s game didn’t have a chance to grab my attention, even though I was looking for it. And sadly, now that I do follow the women’s tournaments and know who the players are, it’s even more obvious that TV coverage remains uneven, prestige remains uneven and, as the recent Forbes list on the highest paid sports stars, the earning potential remains uneven.
This final point is the one that annoys me the most. Why are women’s sports almost universally considered to be second tier? Why is equal pay in tennis still a subject for debate? (And people who suggest that the five-set men’s grand slam matches deserve more than the three-set women’s grand slam matches always conveniently forget that men play three sets for the rest of the season and never seem to follow the argument through to suggest, say, marathon runners deserve to be paid more than 100m sprinters.)
Instead, this is the argument that is most often trotted out: the men’s game brings in the fans so they deserve to be better compensated.
Djokovic said it in 2016; the CEO of the Indian Wells tournament is quoted as saying that the women’s tournament ‘rides on the coat-tails of the men,’ even if he did later withdraw that statement. Honestly, I’d always liked Nadal and I’m so disappointed to hear that he too is on the wrong side of history.
And in a way, they are right. The men’s game does draw bigger crowds and TV audiences. As the Forbes list shows, the male players do get greater numbers of endorsements, and more of them are household names.
But this is not accidental. It is the result of a vicious cycle where women’s matches aren’t in prime time spots or given the same coverage, so no one knows who the players are, so no one watches the matches that are available, so the patriarchal schedulers feel justified in continuing to keep them out of the spotlight.
The Telegraph wrote about this last year, specifically criticising Wimbledon as, devastatingly, it remains one of the worst offenders, regularly scheduling four men’s matches compared to two women’s matches each day on the show courts.
‘In the first seven days of ’s Wimbledon, there were 25 men’s matches scheduled for Centre Court and Court 1, and just 17 women’s matches.’
The topic of exposure flared again in this year’s French Open when Simona Halep, the current world number one and future champion, playing her third round match on Court 18 – not one of the three show courts, although it is apparently the fourth court… Can you imagine Djokovic being relegated in the same way? Because he wasn’t – even though he is currently ranked 22nd in the world and playing as 20th seed, all of his matches were on the top two show courts, Philippe-Chatrier or Suzanne Lenglen. Nadal has only played one match not on Philippe-Chatrier and, of course, that was on Lenglen.
I find this particularly frustrating this year because the women’s game is so so much more interesting right now! With the men’s game struggling with injury and absence, there’s almost no jeopardy for the top two players who have dominated tennis for decades. The younger, up and coming players are developing and becoming more exciting, but do those casual fans who claim they don’t know who the women players are recognise them yet?
But look to the women – Sharapova’s return following a drug ban is a fascinating display of dogmatic determination to prove that she can succeed without the drugs combined with a somewhat ethereal reluctance to admit that what she did was wrong. Halep’s win yesterday was such a fabulous achievement after three grand slam finals losses, and her increasing confidence and determination to win became more palpable as the match went on. Her crushing final set win of 6-1 was exactly how it should have been. Petra Kvitova was stabbed in December 2016 by a home invader and her dominant hand was so badly injured that there were doubts that she would ever play again, and yet she’s back at number 8 in the world. What a superstar!
And, of course, there’s Serena Williams. I could write a whole blog post about how much I love her and how she has inspired me. She’s a powerhouse within her sport, she’s the greatest of all time, she’s a fashion icon…she’s dealt with sexism, she’s dealt with racism, she’s even dealt with criticism that she’s too good.
Now she’s a mother and has not found it easy. From a severely traumatic birth and post-partum period to postnatal depression, her return to the sport after only 8 months is frankly miraculous. The fact that she’s made no attempt to hide how hard it has been is so reassuring. She’s made no secret about how hard motherhood can be, even if you’re Serena Williams! In her black cat suit, she was the Wakanda-inspired superhero that I certainly needed to see and I don’t think I’m alone.
And yet even Serena Williams has dropped off the highest paid list because of her year off for maternity leave and her subsequent drop in earnings. Interestingly, this hasn’t happened to Djokovic who remains at number 86 despite a frankly disastrous couple of years play with few, if any, significant wins since winning the French Open in 2016, and yet has still retained the lucrative endorsements and sponsorships. I wonder why that is? It reminds me again of Halep who, as world number one, didn’t have a clothing sponsor for the Australian Open and had to buy her own kit.
I may be accused of idealism and I’m sure the sports governing bodies wouldn’t agree with what I’m about to say, but I can’t help but feel that sports broadcasters and commentators and indeed governing bodies have a duty to rectify this imbalance. Would it really be that difficult to schedule an equal number of women’s matches on the show courts? Would it really be that devastating for the TV audiences to given women’s sports equal coverage? I’m a tennis fan so this is my particular soap box of choice, but I could say the same about football or golf or cricket or almost any sport you fancy. Surely it’s worth a short dip in figures if there’s a chance for equality in the future? Surely it would be better for the sport long term, particularly in the recruitment of future stars, if people of both (and, maybe in my utopian future, all) genders had role models to inspire them to take up the sport? Surely isn’t not that difficult to comprehend?
Tennis is perhaps ahead of the game (if you’ll excuse the pun) as it has agreed to equal pay, unlike say football where ‘Brazilian forward Neymar, who ranked fifth on Forbes’ 2018 list, was paid more than the entire top seven women’s football leagues combined.’ So why can’t tennis cash in on that investment and give women equal standing and equal exposure?
Then perhaps the players can stop having to answer these same old archaic questions and concentrate on the game instead.