Friday, July 05, 2013

Gender (in)Equality in Tennis

A documentary film entitled Venus Vs aired on ESPN a few days ago.  I did not watch the piece, but from the previews I surmised it was about tennis great Venus Williams and her battle for equal prize money in women's tennis. 

ESPN surely planned this film to air during the final few days of it's Wimbledon coverage, highlighting the brave fight of one of America's most decorated athletes to gain equality in what has for more than a century been largely a "gentleman's game," most pointedly in the realm of compensation. 

I am a female, and an athlete, a tennis player, a tennis fan, and an advocate for initiatives like Title IV which opened the door to girls and women to realize their potential as athletes in schools where once they may not have been able to.   Which is why it has been a bit puzzling to me that since the airing of the Venus Vs previews, I've been so hung up on the issue of equal prize money for female tennis players.  I'm against it. 

I feel like the last several days of Wimbledon tennis have solidified my argument.  If you watched Thursday's first women's semifinal between Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli and Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium, you were treated to a little over an hour of tennis, culminating in a lop-sided victory for Bartoli.  The seemingly dis-satisfied crowd clapped politely, still working their way through their first glass of champagne, wondering why they paid that kind of money for women's semi's tickets. 

By contrast, Friday's first men's semi-final featured almost 5 hours of two of the worlds top players bludgeoning the ball at each other.  There were 'tweeners, turf dives, aces, winners from unbelievable court positions.  I was riveted, the crowd was going nuts, and when it was over, a victory for Novak Djokovic, both men were spent.

In light of these contrasting contests, it seems utterly unfair that Kirsten Flipkens, who may or may not have broken a sweat, should get the same check as Juan Martin Del Potro, who may still be in an ice-bath recovering.    The toll on the body is greater for men's players, there are more high-profile injuries, retirements, walk-overs.  Higher-risk, higher reward, right? Fortunately for the paying fans on ladies semi-final day, the second match was a fantastic one, giving them about 2.5 hours of great quality hitting.  Yet that "long" match was closer to the average length of a given men's match.

I'm not necessarily advocating for a change of the ladies format from best of 3 to best of 5, but just for honest consideration that the reward for winning these matches should not be equal (note: apparently many women's players are willing and in favor of moving to a best-of-5 format)

Mustn't tennis governing bodies consider the business of tennis?  Ticket demand, sponsors, merchandise sales.   Equal-pay advocates have argued that the women's game is more popular in many cases, and true, athletes like the Williams sisters carry a higher profile than most men's players. However, beyond them, and say, Sharapova, I think the high-profile scale has been tipping recently toward the boys. 

Consider that over the course of today's men's match, Wimbledon was able to offer 5 times more commercial spots for their official sponsors, sell 5 times more overpriced bowls of strawberries and cream, and get a bunch more clips on SportsCenter.

There was much hub-bub a few summers ago when the Japanese women's team, having recently lifted the World Cup trophy, were not flown to a tournament on a chartered plane, standard treatment for Japan's men's team that has has far fewer accolades.  That's an argument I can get on board with.  They all play 90 minutes, they all have hard training and travel schedules, and the ladies lifted the damn cup.  Fly them fancy, equal treatment.  But lets have some honest consideration about this tennis prize money thing.  It pains me to not be on board with Venus and Billy Jean here, but equal pay just doesn't make as much sense to me in tennis.

And for what it's worth, I'm pulling for the German and the Scot in the finals.  

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