How to end tennis equal pay arguments

The first Grand Slam event of the tennis year – the Australian Open – starts in sunny Melbourne on Monday (and when your home town is covered in snow – as mine is – you notice the sunny weather). A certain prediction is that sometime in 2015 some sexist will moan about men and women getting equal prize money at the Grand Slams even though it has existed at all Grand Slams since 2007. The worst example of sexist sports writing in 2014 came from the UK journalist Matthew Syed who wrote this rubbish “To deprive (Roger) Federer of income by handing it to female players is not far from daylight robbery”. Oh god where do you start with this one? First of all when equal pay was introduced the women’s prize money went UP rather than the men’s going DOWN so men did not lose income. Secondly Federer’s career prize money (up to January 12 2015) is $88,691,538. To say someone who has earned more than $88 million is being deprived of income is a joke and an insult to millions of poor people worldwide. That remark is so offensive I’m amazed this nonentity is still in employment – even allowing for the fact it is very difficult to get sacked in UK sport – even for racists and rapists as recent events in UK football show.
But why do sexists still moan about equal pay in tennis? The excuse they use is that men play best of five sets and women play best of three so it is unfair. This ignores the fact that the three set limit was imposed on the current women who have repeatedly asked to play five sets – and been turned down by officials. It also ignores the fact that women have played five set matches before – in fact in two different eras.
The first time women played five set matches was between 1891 and 1901 at the US National Championships. During that period five women’s Finals went to five sets played by seven different women. One woman – Elisabeth Moore – played three and another – Juliette Atkinson – played two. Yet in 1902 the United States Lawn Tennis Association – over the objections of some women – cut women’s matches down to three sets because of “concern about females overexerting themselves” (“Playing With the Boys by Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano pages 11 and 168). The next time five set matches for women occurred was in the 1990s. From 1984-1998 the Final of the season ending championships was best of five sets. Three Finals lasted that long and Steffi Graf played in (and won) two of them. After the 1990 Final between Monica Seles and Gabriela Sabatini – the first women’s five setter since 1901 – an article in Tennis ’91 (page 79) said “Women are capable of playing longer… the Final went to three hours 47 minutes of high quality competition”. That was 25 years ago. The woman athlete of today is fitter and stronger than her counterpart of 25 years ago (this also applies to the men) so there is no reason they can’t play five sets.
So why won’t the officials let them? I suspect TV doesn’t want the early days of Grand Slams – which go on long enough as it is – to increase in length. But there is an easy solution here. Since it is equality we are aiming for why not have this rule for Grand Slams. The first four rounds should be best of three sets for both genders. The Quarter-Finals onwards should be best of five sets for both genders. This would cut down overlong male matches in the first week (Like the Isner v Mahnut match at the 2010 Wimbledon that went to 70-68 in the fifth) while preserving the five set format which in my opinion is important. Sometimes long sport is the best sport – the five day cricket match, the five set tennis match and the seven game play off series being three examples. It should be preserved.
Of course some sexists would moan even if the women played five sets. They would say the men’s matches last longer so they should be paid more but that is not always true. In a combined male-female event in Beijing last year the men’s Final was won 6-0 6-2 by Novak Djokovic while the women’s Final was won 6-4 2-6 6-3 by Maria Sharapova. No one was calling for Maria to win more than Novak even though her match lasted far longer. Sexists argue that men’s TV ratings are higher but again not always so. The 2002 Wimbledon Women’s Final between the Williams sisters earned a Nielsen rating of 4.6 in the US while the Men’s Final the same year between Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian had a rating between 2.6 and 3.1.(McDonagh and Pappano page 250). Hewitt is Australian and Nalbandian is Argentinian. That proves in sport nationality as well as gender is a factor in delivering ratings.
But does all this matter? Yes it does. You cannot get rid of sexism in society without getting rid of it in sport. Too often sport is used to justify sexism in the non-sporting arena. In 1975 UK MP Ronald Bell – one of a tiny number of MPs to oppose the Sex Discrimination Bill – used gender segregation in sport to justify his theory that banning sex discrimination was an absurdity. More recently commentators on the Daily Telegraph website have used the fact that men and women are separated in sport as a reason for keeping female soldiers out of frontline combat. And last month UK journalists Elizabeth Day and Jonathan Maitland were debating equal pay for women on Sky News and Maitland asked Day if women tennis players should get equal pay. Amazingly Day said no. Funny how sport can brainwash a feminist (Day writes for liberal left UK papers like the Guardian and the Observer) into going against her own principles. Would she accept less pay than her male co-workers? Doubt it.
One other thought. Would you tell Serena Williams she is too weak to play five sets? Because I wouldn’t…

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