The debate over equal pay in tennis, explained
Controversial comments by Indian Wells Tennis Garden CEO Raymond Moore and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic have renewed the longstanding debate in the tennis world over whether men’s and women’s players should be paid equally.
“No, I think the WTA—you know, in my next life when I come back I want to be someone in the WTA,” Moore said, “because they ride on 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.”
After defeating Milos Raonic on Sunday in the BNP Paribas final, Djokovic followed Moore’s comments with controversial statements of his own, saying that he believed men should earn more because stats show their matches are a bigger draw.
“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,” Djokovic said. “I think that’s one of the, you know, reasons why maybe we should get awarded more. Women should fight for what they think they deserve and we should fight for what we think we deserve.
“I think as long as it’s like that and there is data and stats available and information, upon who attracts more attention, spectators, who sells more tickets and stuff like that, in relation to that it has to be fairly distributed.”
Despite renewed attention on the issue, the debate over equal pay in tennis isn’t new.
Billie Jean King’s advocacy
Tennis legend Billie Jean King spearheaded the cause for pay equality in tennis in the early 1970s. When King won the U.S. Open in 1972 and received $15,000 less prize money than men’s winner Ilie Năstase, she vowed not to compete in the tournament the following year if the purse was not equal.
Sure enough, the U.S. Open prize money became equal in 1973, which was also the same year that King helped start the WTA. She and eight other founding members of the women’s tour all originally signed $1 contracts to compete in the WTA. Later, sponsorships and a television contract increased their incomes, and King became the first female athlete to earn more than $100,000 in prize money.
In a landmark event in September 1973, King defeated Bobby Riggs in the fabled Battle of the Sexes. A winner of 12 Grand Slam singles titles in her career, King vanquished her male challenger 6–4, 6–3, 6–3 in front of a television audience of nearly 50 million.
“I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match,” she later said. “It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self esteem.”
King continued to advocate for equal rights in tennis even after her retirement in 1983. Because of the efforts of King and others, female players officially achieved pay parity at the Australian Open in 2001 and Roland Garros in 2006.
Venus speaks out
The efforts of seven-time Grand Slam singles champion Venus Williams caused the final Slam domino to fall.
Before her 2005 victory at Wimbledon against Lindsay Davenport, Williams stood up in front of the tournament’s governing body to advocate for equal pay at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. In her speech, Williams told her audience to close their eyes and imagine being a little girl who works for much of her life only to “… get to this stage, and you’re told you’re not the same as a boy ...” Williams’s speech fell on deaf ears, however, as her requests were initially ignored.
In 2006, she continued her pursuit for pay equity at Wimbledon with an op-ed in London’s The Times.
“With power and status comes responsibility,” Williams wrote. “Well, Wimbledon has power and status. The time has come for it to do the right thing by paying men and women the same sums of prize money.”
Wimbledon changes policy
The All England Club finally relented in 2007, and Williams, the 2007 women’s singles winner, was awarded the same $1.4 million prize sum as men’s champion Roger Federer. It marked the first time since women began playing at Wimbledon in 1880 that they received the same prize money as their male counterparts.
The five sets to three argument
Opponents of equal pay often point to the fact that at Grand Slam tournaments, men play best-of-five sets while women play best-of-three series. At the vast majority of tournaments, however, men play best-of-three sets.
Because of the International Tennis Foundation mandated format, women get paid more per game than men do at select tournaments. It should be noted that many female players are in favor of playing best-of-five series at Slams.
“Our players have always said that they are willing to play best 3 out of 5 sets,” WTA chairman and CEO Stacey Allaster said in 2011. “The Grand Slams decide the format at their events and to date each Grand Slam has opted for the women to play 2 of 3 sets.”
Billie Jean King echoed Allaster’s sentiments by saying, “When women started they did play best of five sets, but a woman—probably in a corset—fainted, and the all-male board decided we could only play best of three. We have offered to play five sets anytime.”
Serena, other female stars push back
Serena Williams, a 21-time Grand Slam singles champion and perhaps the greatest female tennis player ever, chimed in on the debate when she responded to Djokovic’s comments on Tuesday.
“If I have a daughter who plays tennis and also have a son that plays tennis, I wouldn’t say that my son deserves more because he is a man,” Williams said. “If they both started at three years old I would say they both deserve the same amount of money.
“I have been playing since the age of two and it would be shocking to say my son would deserve more than my daughter. It is irrelevant. Novak is entitled to his opinion but if he has a daughter—I think he has a son right now—he should talk to her and tell her how his son deserves more money because he is a boy.”
King and 18-time Grand Slam singles champion Chris Evert also weighed in on Djokovic’s comments.
“Djokovic needs a daughter,” King said. “When you are the dominant group, others are very invisible to you. If you’re the non-dominant group, boy you know about the dominant group because you have to navigate.”
“I think a lot of the comments are cultural, too,” Evert said of the Serbian star’s comments. “I doubt you hear that as much from the American men’s tennis players, and I’m sort of applauding the Americans for that. ... I think the Europeans, sorry, later on took a cue from the Americans, and I think Americans accepted equality on a lot of different levels earlier than Europe did.”
King and Evert met with Djokovic on Wednesday and made peace over his comments.
Djokovic later clarified his stance on pay equity in tennis.
“When I say about the distribution of the wealth and when I say about growth of the sport, I don't make any difference amongst the gender,” he said Wednesday, after first attempting to apologize in a Facebook post. “My beliefs are completely in line with gender equality and equal opportunities. We are all part of the same sport and we all contribute in our own unique and special ways.”
Male players weigh in
Certainly not all male players are against equal pay. Two-time Slam winner Andy Murray, who has called himself a feminist, spoke out against Moore’s and Djokovic’s comments.
“I think there should be equal pay, 100%, at all combined events,” Murray said.
The world No. 2 also took a swipe at Ukrainian player Sergiy Stakhovsky with his comments. Stakhovsky, the world No. 115 player and member of the ATP Player’s Council, is openly opposed to equal pay.
“One of the things Novak said was that if women are selling more seats and tickets they should make more but at a tournament like this, for example, if Serena is playing on center court and you have a men’s match with Stakhovsky playing, people are coming to watch Serena,” Murray said. “The crowds are coming to watch the women as well. The whole thing just doesn’t stack up—it changes on a day-to‑day basis depending on the matches you get.”
The Scot later added that people would rather watch a match at Wimbledon involving former British No. 1 Laura Robson than Stakhovsky, sparking a heated Twitter exchange between the two men earlier this week.
Roger Federer also came out in favor of equal pay following Djokovic’s comments: “I’m all for equal prize money,” he said at the Miami Open.
The debate doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon.