Friday, July 6, 2012

Equal pay in tennis called into question

Tennis is one of the (few) sports where the prize money for men and women is equal at major tournaments – as of 2007, even at Wimbledon.

Yet, five years later, it is precisely during the grass-court Grand Slam that equal pay comes into question.  Gilles Simon, a French player who recently joined the ATP Players Council, was the one who vocalized his concerns. Simon told the Associated Press, that he has “the feeling that men's tennis is actually more interesting than women's tennis.''

That men should be paid more than women is a recurring one. Usually it is supported by the argument that men’s matches are longer: men play a best of five, while women play a best of three sets at Grand Slams. Simon, however, clarified that he was approaching the issue from a business and entertainment aspect, arguing that tickets to men’s matches are more expensive, therefore men deserve more money.

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), naturally, responded strongly. So did the women on the tour. In an interview, Maria Sharapova pointed out that her matches appear to be more popular than Simon’s. Serena Williams, then, jumped to support Sharapova’s observation, saying that “she is way hotter than he is.”

Obviously Williams took a more light-hearted approach to rebut Simon's comments, but the fact that she felt the need to speak out shows the importance of the issue.

Simon’s views should hardly shock us as they are neither new, nor uncommon. Deborah Cowan, from the Women’s Views on News site, called them “recycled.”

After spending 15 years of playing tennis competitively, I dare call them redundant. And, at this point, somewhat irrelevant.  The International Tennis Federation (ITF) confirmed equal pay at Wimbledon (most certainly not because of Williams’ opinion regarding Simon’s lack of hotness) and there is no indication it is planning to change that. 

As Roger Federer pointed out, the issue is an “endless debate,” but it is, nevertheless, important to mention as it brings some assumptions about sports in our society to the forefront. 

I was glad to hear that women from the tour spoke up and firmly stood for equal pay.

Besides Sharapova and Williams, Samantha Stosur commented as well. She doesn’t think a length of a match necessarily guarantees better quality and said that some men’s matches are “pretty boring.” Others, including Marion Bartoli and Ana Ivanovic, stated that they work just as hard as men do. The female players who spoke up unanimously fought back.

Quite obviously, women’s tennis players will not say that they deserve to be paid less. Most of the men on the tour remain diplomatic or silent about the issue, which is, again, somewhat predictable, even though according to Simon all 128 players in the men’s draw share his sentiments. From those 128, so far we only heard two -- Andy Murray and Andy Roddick -- who backed Simon.
Former Wimbledon champion, Goran Ivanisevic also spoke up supporting Simon. The consistent theme in the responses, including in this article from Yahoo! Sports, is that this is not about gender, it's about business and entertainment.
And then, there is John McEnroe.
The tennis legend, who brought tears to his former mixed-doubles partner's eyes, said "There should be no argument when they are at the same event at the same time, that there should be equal pay." McEnroe also credited Billie Jean King for her efforts towards equity in sports. 

The equal pay debate can, indeed, be endless. As a Bleacher Report blogger says, perhaps, people might just need to "get over" the current state of things that prize money is equal for men and women.

But it seems that we are not quite over it yet. Simon brought it up shortly after he was appointed to the players' council. Though few of his colleagues have come out to support him, clearly the sentiment that women's tennis is less valuable than men's tennis is out there, even if unspoken.

Simon also cannot be dismissed on the count that he is "only" the 13th ranked player in the world and nobody really cares about him. He is, now, in a position of relative power where his job is to represent the players. Hence, his comments and, consequently the responses, need to be discussed.

And we most certainly cannot buy into the argument that this conversation is merely about "business." It is about the very values that drive the organization of sports in our society. It is as much about labor as it is about gendered bodies and relations – many of which sports advocates and athletes alike are consistently challenging.
Equal pay in tennis might not be under threat. But Simon’s statements remind us that, ideologically, we might be far from gender equity. And this means that we need to put a little more effort into talking about it.

-- Dunja Antunovic

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