This week, Novak Djokovic, the world No. 1 in men’s tennis took the position that due to increased spectator attendance of men’s matches, men should get paid more. These odious remarks were surpassed by the tournament director of the BNP Paribas Open, Raymond Moore. Moore argued that women players ride on the coattails of male players and that women players should get “on their knees and thank God for Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal”. To add insult to injury he also referenced players as being physically and competitively attractive. This echoes other claims made notably by Ernests Gulbis and puzzlingly former female world no. 1 Dinara Safina.This
growing chorus of voices, though influential in the tennis world, are full of hot air.
Female tennis players face a tough crowd that holds them to a standard that no male tennis player is truly helps to: being physically attractive and a great athlete. For female professionals there seems to be a qualifier that a player is good even though she isn’t good looking. Oppositely for male players, their athleticism is what is key and any physical appeal is ancillary. Add to this the fact that the way in which our society has constructed attractiveness for each gender and the problem is exacerbated. Women should be thin or curvy and wear cute outfits whereas men should be more muscular and have a defined body. One needs look no further than Serena Williams or Francesca Schiavone to see that when women have body types that do not fit into this narrow paradigm, that there is criticism of that player. This is made most bare in the fact that for many years, despite her incredible results, Serena Williams consistently made less overall than Maria Sharapova, a more conventional beauty. This double standard is totally not fair and is at its peak when the argument is had about whether or not women should play best of five sets.
Add to this the pressure on women to start and end their careers early in order to start families. Male players cant get pregnant and therefore have never had to face that particular obstacle. In fact, more and more male players are becoming fathers and seeing an uptick in their play.
This much pontificated reason to allow unequal pay would require that the largely white male media markets and creators of culture suddenly become not just ok with, but encouraging of, more physical and conventionally “masculine” appearances among female athletes who would have to alter their training regiments to fit the format. However, the Women’s Tennis Association is ready and willing to make the change if asked.
Another reason these detractors are wrong is that history is rife with examples of the time that the women’s game was more exciting or just as exciting as the men’s tour (not that, in my opinion, that is the situation now). Fans need look no farther back than the 2015 U.S. Open, where the Calendar Grand Slam was in play for Serena and the Women’s final sold out before the Men’s. This would suggest that there is certainly more at play than simply the gender of the the athlete.
From what I have seen, in attending tennis tournaments like the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, the fans don’t usually care too much if the match is a men’s match or a women’s match; they want a damn good match. I’ve seen competitive matches with less famous players be more attended than a less competitive match with star power, men’s matches with less attendees than a women’s match and doubles matches draw a larger crowd than a singles match. It ultimately doesn’t seem to matter one way or the other so long as the quality of tennis is high or the match is significant in one way or another.
All this being said, there is some distinction between the men’s and women’s tours. Currently there is a really strong set of players- Djokovic, Murray, Nadal, Federer and Wawrinka— that have essentially dominated the big tournaments with small deviations. This has led to a consistent top tier and under tier of good players that has existed for years. This top tier furthermore has made the competition fierce amongst all the players creating, to many, a “Golden Age” of tennis. Conversely on the women’s side, though there is an intense competitiveness and density of the field, there is no similar durable top tier that can take on Serena Williams. There have been moments where Serena has lost and faltered, but there has not been a consistent rival to Serena that can truly theater her. Hopefully with Victoria Azarenka’s health issues on the mend the trend will change. But judging equal pay on the way a set of players are playing now would not make sense for a future generation. Setting the precedent now would seem arbitrary and would be hard to change.
From the formation of the WTA under Billie Jean King to Venus Williams personal- and successful- entreaties to Wimbledon to pay both genders equally, the struggle for pay equity has been incessant. But most often these critics cite only the current status of the game or fail to take into account the societal pressures and institutionalized sexism that takes place in sports. Female athletes must put up with a lot of societal pressures that men simply do not have to face. Female athletes deserve the same pay as male athletes because we, in this day and age, should strive to see athletes as equals.