Tennis champions drawn into equal pay debate

Serena Williams qualified for 4th round in Australian Open 2019. Source: AP

The Australian Open is in full swing, and the debate around gender equality in tennis has once again risen to the surface – with more players backing the push for equal pay.

Tennis ace Serena Williams is calling for pay equality, urging male players to be allies to their female counterparts and help bridge the gap.

The prize money for male and female players for all four of the major tennis tournaments is the same, but that’s not the case across other Association of Tennis Professionals and Women's Tennis Association (WTA) competitions.

Williams, who holds the record for winning the most grand slam titles in the Open Era,  said it was high time all players were paid equally.

“In order for change to really be made, men and women have to work together,” Williams said.

“They have to have the same message; they have to support each other.”

Thanks to Williams’ efforts, the topic has remained in the spotlight throughout the Australian Open, with many players quizzed on their views in their post-match press conferences.

Serena Williams first reached the number 1 ranking in 2002.
Serena Williams first reached the number 1 ranking in 2002.
Getty Images

Speaking after his fourth round defeat to Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas,  Roger Federer said those in the spotlight should make the most of their platform.

“Sometimes maybe the men’s game is a bit more popular, and sometimes it’s the women’s game,” he said.

“We should always help each other as players, regardless of who is more popular at the moment.”

World number two in men’s singles tennis Rafael Nadal was asked about his views after defeating Tomas Berdych to secure his place in the quarter-finals.

“I don’t care if they win more than us… if they sell more tickets than what we sell, they deserve to [earn] more than us,” he said.

“If they sell more than us, they have to win more [prize money] than us.”  

Rafael Nadal was asked about his views on pay parity.
Rafael Nadal was asked about his views on pay parity.
SBS News

The statistics

It was only in 2007 that Wimbledon finally became the last of the tennis majors to offer equal pay – and that was thanks to a determined push by Venus Williams.

“Why does Wimbledon choose to place a lesser value on my championship trophy than that of the 2005 men’s winner Roger Federer?” she remarked in 2006.

Years on, the US Open, the Australian Open, the Roland Garros and Wimbledon now offer the same prize money for male and female winners.

But in some tournaments, the men’s event winners receive more than double the female players.

At the Rogers Cup women’s event in Montreal, Simona Halep received a cheque for around half a million US dollars.

Nadal received more than US $1 million.

In Cincinnati, the men’s prize money is more than double the women’s prize money.

In 2018, there were no women ranked among Forbes’s global listing of the highest paid athletes – Serena Williams did not play a WTA event due to her pregnancy, and Maria Sharapova was in the midst of a suspension.

Williams is expected to return to the list this year, but with no other female sports stars with a similar profile or exposure, it’s likely that yet again, she will be the only woman on the list, as she was in 2017.

Viewership trends

The argument made by Federer that ticket sales and viewership can change from year to year as a reason to support equality in the sport is backed up by statistics.

In tennis, there are often specific players – and rivalries – that draw large audiences in the arena and on screen.

After his defeat to Stefanos Tsitsipas, Roger Federer said popularity can fluctuate.
After his defeat to Stefanos Tsitsipas, Roger Federer said popularity can fluctuate.

US sports broadcaster ESPN revealed last year year, television ratings for the women’s final at Wimbledon went up, but decreased for the men’s final.

Similarly, Williams’ loss to Naomi Osaka in the US Open finals last year was the most watched game in ESPN’s coverage of the whole tournament – it drew more than three million viewers, while the men’s final drew averaged around 2 million.

In many tournaments, such as the US Open, it is not uncommon for the women’s rounds to sell out before the men’s – a testament to the popularity of certain players, including Williams.  

Andy Murray commended as an ally

When Andy Murray announced his plans to hang up his racquet in 2019, many players took the opportunity to thank him for his efforts in calling out sexism, and campaigning for equality across his career.

Sharapova told reporters on Monday, after her victory against Harriet Dart, that while there was not always widespread support for equality from most male players, Murray has been an exception.

Andy Murray has been commended as an ally for female players.
Andy Murray has been commended as an ally for female players.
AAP Image/Corinne Dubreuil/ABACAPRESS.COM

“Sitting at a press conference in Wimbledon five, seven years ago, there was not a lot of warmth coming from that side or that perspective,” she said on Monday.

“There are definitely a few exceptions in the game, and I’m sure that [Murray’s] been one of them.”

Murray has been praised by many female players as a champion on and off the court, and has challenged sexism over the years by highlighting the achievements of female players.

“I do not think there is a woman player who is not totally supportive of Andy Murray,” Serena Williams said.

“He has spoken up for women’s rights… especially in tennis… we love Andy Murray.”

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