While Men Make Missteps, Female Tennis Players Are Advancing Global Pay Equality

Sorry Raymond Moore, but Serena Williams won't be "getting on her knees," anytime soon.
Publish date:
March 24, 2016
Tennis, Serena Williams, Equal Pay, Wimbledon

For years, female tennis players have been at the epicenter of the very serious discussion around wage equality and gender. Over the past week, that struggle has been acted out in the media among tennis' brightest stars including Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Sergiy Stakhovsky, and iconic female players Chris Evert, Billie Jean King and — of course! — Serena Williams.

At last weekend's BNP Paribas Open, off-court comments by Indian Wells Tennis Garden CEO Raymond Moore created a firestorm. He said of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA):

You know, in my next life when I come back I want to be someone in the WTA because they ride on the coattails of the men. They don't make any decisions and they are lucky. They are very, very lucky. 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.

Yes. He really said that.

Serena Williams fired back with the following:

Those remarks are very much mistaken and very inaccurate. Last year the women's final at the US Open sold out well before the men. I'm sorry, did Roger play in that final, or Rafa or any man play in a final that was sold out before the men's final? I think not. There's only one way to interpret that. Get on your knees, which is offensive enough, and thank a man... As women, have come a long way. We shouldn't have to drop to our knees at any point.

Moore has since resigned. Or rather, he was strongly encouraged to step down. However, his words fueled the flames of a controversy that raged on for the remainder of the week.

What I find interesting is that the struggle for pay equality in tennis has taken the U.S. women's rights movement from national to international. More than forty years ago, tennis champion Billie Jean King created the Women's Tennis Association to advocate for equal pay. Later that year, after pressure from King, the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money to men and women while Wimbledon, the French Open and the Australian Open continued to provide unequal pay.

In 2005, King's protégée Venus Williams took up the issue at Wimbledon when she attended a board meeting at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. She asked the members to imagine being a "little girl who trains for years only to get to this stage and, you're told you're not the same as a boy." Venus' appeal seemed to work as several months later the women's prize at Wimbledon was increased, although it was still unequal to the men's prize money.

Venus later penned an Op-Ed in the London Times, titled "Wimbledon Has Sent Me a Message: I'm Only a Second-Class Champion." The piece generated enough buzz that MP Janet Anderson raised the issue in Parliament, which prompted Prime Minister Tony Blair to endorse equal pay.

In 2007, Venus' efforts paid off. The chairman of the All England Club declared that Wimbledon would eliminate the pay disparity between men and women. At the time, this was a big win that encouraged the three other grand slam events to follow suit. Currently, all four Grand Slam events pay equal prize money to both men and women. However, scores of women-only tennis matches pay significantly less prize money than that of similar male-only events.

This fact has continued to be a source of angst for many players who are interested in the continued improvement of their sport. Novak Djokovic is currently the number one men's tennis player in the world. He is also young, (28 years old), and if judging by his and Serena's little dance at the Wimbledon Champion's Dinner last year, he's also fun and hip.

So you'd think that when Novak Djokovic was asked about Moore's controversial comments that he'd say something progressive about women in tennis. But no. Djokovic said of women athletes:

They fought for what they deserve, and they got it. On the other hand, I think that our men's tennis world, ATP world, should fight for 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, you know, reasons why maybe we should get awarded more.

Then he made some off color comments about how female tennis players have it tougher because, you know, hormones and all. I suppose Djokovic meant well in an I'm-not-taking-sides-and-messing-up-my-money type of way. Maybe he has a point about fair distribution of pay based on data and stats. Still, these comments felt regressive.

I think it's important to call out the difficulty in calculating exactly what tennis players should be paid based on audience draw, because so many variables are factored into the equation such as who is playing, event ticket sales and where the event is being held.

On its face, it does seem that the men's 2015 ATP Tour —drawing 973 million television and web viewers compared to the women's 2015 WTA Tour's 395 million viewers — makes them more popular with audiences. However, the 2015 Wimbledon match that featured Djokovic versus Federer in the men's final and Serena Williams versus Garbine Muguruza in the women's final had nearly equal ratings and viewership at 2.7 million viewers versus 2.4 million viewers.

In both 2013 and 2014, the women's finals at the U.S. Open (both featuring Serena Williams) had higher viewer ratings than the men's finals. At the 2015 US Open, the quarterfinals drew a near record with 3.3 million viewers fueled by the Serena versus Venus match that drew 6 million viewers, nearly double the Wimbledon numbers that included Djokovic.

All of these complicated variables are exactly why equal pay is so important. It eliminates the need for mathematical analysis and provides the most fair solution for all involved.

It seemed that top British player Andy Murray, an advocate of equal prize money, understands that male tennis players don't always create a bigger audience draw than female players as Moore suggested. Murray said as much in his Twitter dig to Sergiy Stakhovsky (a vocal opponent of equal prize money), saying that more people would watch a match at Wimbledon involving Laura Robson than the 114th ranked Stakhovsky.

To drive home his point, Murray then mentioned a Davis Cup match in 2006, where he and Stakhovsky played together saying "I played you in a Davis Cup match in Ukraine and there must have been a thousand people there max!"

Call it cultural conditioning or gender bias, but for whatever reason there seems to be a strong current in women's tennis that continues to undervalue, underestimate and marginalize female athletes. However, I think the last week's debate illustrates the importance of women in sports.

Although, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009 and equal pay for women has long been a discussion in the U.S., the conversation is only just beginning in many countries. For example, in Moore's native South Africa it wasn't until 1996 that women were legally recognized as equal citizens. And in Djokovic's native Serbia, the Gender Equality Act wasn't adopted until 2006.

Chris Evert said as much, "I don't understand the hormone thing with Novak, you just don't do that. I think with him it's a cultural thing. The Europeans were behind the Americans when it came to accepting equality."

Yesterday, Novak Djokovic met with Billie Jean King and Chris Evert to discuss the controversy. Apparently, it went well because King posted a photo on her Twitter account of the three saying Djokovic "is a class act and true champion." He later posted a pretty vanilla apology on his Facebook explaining his position. He also called Serena and other female tennis players to smooth things out after his eye brow raising comments made over the weekend.

Sports have long pushed the customs and morals of our society. Long before Jackie Robinson, athletes were fighting against both color and gender barriers. Tennis is one of the rare sports where women and men from various parts of the world converge and are given an international platform. Feathers are bound to get ruffled when people from such diverse backgrounds and with opposing world views come together. However, I believe this has been a teaching moment. With phenomenal athletes such as Billie Jean King, Venus and Serena Williams at the helm, I expect to see the world of tennis continue to challenge the opinions of influential people around the world on important women's issues like fair pay.