Americans love the concept of equality, and since 1999, the Women’s Tennis Association has adopted it as its own personal watchword, protesting the unequal pay for the women’s and men’s championships. This year, the debate has surged once again into the limelight, the most brilliant target of which had been Wimbledon. While Lleyton Hewitt brought home 525,000 pounds, or $756,000, Serena Williams earned a measly $700,000. The WTA thinks the disparity is unfair, but the Wimbledon committee, headed by Tim Phillips, won’t back down. Should the Brits follow the Australian and U.S. Opens by eliminating the gap in prize monies earned by men and women? Or is it the latter opens that are, as Phillips said, “out of line”?
For me, there is a definite logic to the inequality of pay: unequal work. Women only have to win two sets to win a match — a maximum of three sets per match. Men, however, have to win three sets. That means men can play as many as five sets in order to win a match. All else being equal, there is the significant difference of how much time women spend on the court. The longest match ever played on the same day at Wimbledon was between men and went a grueling five hours and five minutes. The longest women’s? A mere three hours and 45 minutes.
Is it how hard or how much that counts when it comes to how you get paid? Or is tennis, as Billie Jean King said, just another form of entertainment, where people shouldn’t be paid by the hour but by the number of tickets a player can sell?
Wimbledon officials have said in the past that the reason for the monetary disparity rests in the lack of competition women face on the tour. The best are too good and the rest just aren’t much of a challenge, or so it seems. But in the last 10 years, only five different men have won the Wimbledon title. The women, on the other hand, have had seven different Wimbledon winners. The women win the argument for variety, at least in this specific tournament.
Another argument, popular back in 1999, was that women’s tennis was simply too boring. No one was interested. That was before the Williams sisters did for women’s tennis what Tiger Woods has done for golf. Along with Jennifer Capriati’s moody resurrection, challengers Daniela Hantuchova, Amelie Mauresmo and Justine Henin, and periodically injured stalwarts Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis and Monica Seles, not to mention the worldwide obsession with perennial loser Anna Kournikova, women’s tennis is at an all-time high. People flock to see women’s tennis. No one can claim that watching Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Marat Safin flop in the early rounds of Wimbledon was particularly exciting for the fans.
But the number of people watching the fourth-round match between Tim Henman and Michel Kratochvil was an all-time record, according to the BBC. If we’re paying for who offers the most entertainment, shouldn’t these two get more money than the champs, or at least all the other men who made it to the fourth round? Of course not. The difference between sports and other forms of entertainment is that athletes play for themselves, not the spectators, while musicians, actors, etc. need the spectators.
Well, perhaps the record proves that men’s tennis has more viewers, and thus, must be more entertaining. Or could the record simply be due to the fact that Henman represented a rare chance that Wimbledon could finally have a British champ after decades of disappointment? While the Brits found Henman more exciting than tea and crumpets, the rest of the world could hardly get their knickers in a twist with the top men’s seeds seeing more early round upsets than John McEnroe could shake a racket at.
In the end, if officials want to deny equal pay, they need a better argument than lack of interest or amount of competition in women’s tennis. For me, the fact of the matter is that women tennis players just don’t play as much tennis in a Grand Slam as men do. If the world is going to adopt our obsession with equality, they have to take it with a spoon full of sugar, because the truth can be bitter. The old adage is equal pay for equal work, and the work just isn’t equal.
Katherine Stevens is a sophomore in Calhoun College. She is a staff reporter for the Yale Daily News.