Game, Set and Snatch

The grunting. The sinister parent/coach/jailor lurking in the background. The ever more creative attempts to design an eye catching outfit whist restricted to ‘white’ and ‘must be able to play tennis in it’. Wimbledon is here again, and if you don’t care about tennis there’s still plenty to enjoy. 
Tennis is one of those happy few sports where the women’s game is treated pretty much on a par with the men’s. Unlike football, rugby or cricket, where the sight of a woman on the pitch is enough to spark a mass exodus of stadiums, people actually get excited about watching women play tennis. Because of the tennis!*

Well, ok, not just because of the tennis. But there’s a surprising amount of parity between the ridiculous non-tennis things as well. While it doesn’t get talked about very much, presumably because it’s more interesting to discuss women athletes making noises that sound a bit like sex, the men do grunt too. And we’ve all shuddered a little at the sight of Judi Murray, sitting courtside like some kind of bird of prey who taught her child how to rip the heads off mice and now wants to check they’re doing it right. 

And, while women definitely lead the way in bizarre Wimbledon fashion choices, I don’t think any of us who were there to see it will ever forget. This:

Or indeed this:

But there is an area where, until a few years ago, things were decidedly not equal: how much you get paid. 

I realise we’re not talking equal pay issues like the rest of the country is talking equal pay issues here. The winner of Wimbledon gets over a million quid – what’s a few thousand here and there? Until 2007, it was a few thousand here or there, with men receiving £655,000 compared to women’s £625,000. But get down to the lower orders, where players struggle to get to the first round and get a couple of thousand for it, and it actually really matters. 

The disparity was fixed in 2007, and both sexes are now rewarded for winning with the eye watering sum of £1,150,000. But, like Lleyton Hewitt in a Wimbledon quarter final, the debate just refuses to lie down and die. World no. 13 Gilles Simon reopened the controversy last week. ‘I don’t think equal money works. In sport’ he added, cleverly sidestepping accusations that he just doesn’t like the thought of a woman getting as much money as him, period. ‘Tennis is the only sport today where we have parity, even though men’s tennis remains more attractive than women’s. At this time.’

Leaving aside suggestions that we should conduct ‘attractiveness reviews’ at regular intervals to decide how much players are worth, what’s he on about? Having done some extensive polling of opinionated friends and colleagues, I have identified three separate arguments for why Wimbledon shouldn’t be paying female players as much. 

1.) Women don’t spend as long on court

Best of three matches are generally over quicker than best of five. Well, duh. So do we pay prize money according to how much time is spent on court? If so, then we should dock some of Simon’s pay for crashing out of the second round in two and a half hours this year. Almost exactly the same time it took Maria Sharapova to win her second round match, and nearly an hour less than it took Caroline Wozniaki to win through to that round. By this logic, if you’re shit hot and winning every round in straight sets, you should be paid less for it. I’m not saying the women’s matches aren’t usually shorter. But if we’re paying based on time spent playing, the officials are going to have to get their calculators out. 

2.) Women aren’t as good at tennis

No, really, this is an actual argument. It’s a classic, really – invent something, watch men do it, see what they do well, then have a looksee if women can do it too. Oooh, they do it differently. They’re not as good then. We like our female tennis players to be one of two varieties – cute (preferably Russian) blonde bombshells, or scary beefy man like hulks of tennis playing metal. If the former, then we have no interest in their ability to play tennis at all. Witness the celebrity status of long since retired Anna Kournikova. Bit shit at tennis, but PHWOARR. 

Unfortunately, it’s the former that people remember, and then use to support the ‘women are crap at tennis’ argument – Kournikova has nothing on Federer! This is true. But also irrelevant. 

3.) Women’s tennis isn’t as interesting, so pulls in less money

There could be something in this one. It costs less to see the women’s matches. I don’t know what the viewing figures are for each final, but I’m willing to bet the men pull in more. Best of three sets leave less room for twists and turns, epic fight backs – a couple of slip ups and it’s all over.So I hope, when Goran Ivanisevic, childhood hero of mine, waded into the debate to claim that ‘men's tennis is more entertaining and appealing than women's tennis’ he was referring to match length. Because if it’s about the tennis itself, then who gets to decide what’s entertaining? Maybe female players should start spitting on the ground, beating their chests and screaming ‘COME ON’ in between points a bit more? (Actually, a lot of them already do). Maybe Maria Sharapova could learn Irish dancing and deliver a quick rendition at changes of ends? The outfits are basically the same. 

Given the choice, yeah, I’d probably rather go to the men’s final, because five set matches are more interesting. But Wimbledon prize money isn’t a salary based on how much money the sport pulls in. It’s prize money. It reflects how much the tournament values its champions.

But what do they players think? Well, Gilles isn’t alone in this. Trust him, ALL the other male players think it too. No, really, they do. They’re just not brave enough to say it. Not like Gilles. He is a lone wolf, a hero throwing himself on his sword to stand up for the rights of male tennis players everywhere: ‘The 128 players in the draw think like me, that’s for sure. Just ask them.’

Well, it’s been about a week now, and none of them have actually agreed with him. The only serious response has come from Maria Sharapova, who turns out to be as forthright with her opinions as she is with her forehand. ‘Look, we’ve fought so long to get equal prize money’ she replied. ‘It was a big challenge and nobody really supported us. We’re proud of it, and we continue to build the sport and make it bigger. No matter what anyone says, or the criticisms we get, I’m sure a few more people watch my matches than his, so...’

BOOM!Elsewhere, responses have been few and far between. Roger Federer, a great ambassador for tennis on whose words millions will hang, responded with characteristic fervour:

‘It’s just a matter of who believes what’ he said, passionately thumping the table with the force of his own opinions. ‘That is an endless debate. So, whatever you believe.’

Meanwhile Serena Williams, 234 time champion of Wimbledon and campaigner for women’s tennis, blasted ‘yeah, well, of course people watch Maria play more. She’s way hotter than him.’ There followed an intense debate with the reporters, in which Serena informed them she likes pink roses, because pink is her favourite colour, and she hasn’t had a date in, like forever. Way to take back the power, Serena.

Probably the most telling put down of all came from 19 year old American player Sloane Stephens, who summed up what we were all thinking with ‘I don’t care what he says. About anything.’ Nice one. Seriously, WTF? Isn’t ANYONE going to take a stand on this one? 

Besides Sharapova’s fabulously withering putdown, the only really interesting response has come from Andy Murray, of all people. Yep, that guy who has dedicated all off court time to studiously developing a lack of expression, and just in case he’s left anything out, shields half his face during interviews and stares at the floor. Men don’t compete in singles and doubles at the same time any more, he pointed out, because they don’t have the energy. Women still do, and they sometimes win both. This earns them more money. This is unfair. 

He’s right! If female players still have enough left in the tank to play doubles, why are they only playing best of three set matches? This is the reason the ladies’ singles tournament is less interesting. This is why your ticket to the ladies’ final costs less. This is why Gilles Simon still has a leg to stand on. Because, though he’s clearly a twat, his argument is just a teensy, tiny bit right. In no other sport do women play for less time, or have the bar set so much lower. Let them tough it out. Let’s have best of five set matches for all Grand Slam players, and then let’s see what argument Giles Simon and his army of anonymous misogynists can come up with next. 

*By way of contrast, an upsetting exchange on Test Match Special’s discussion of women’s cricket last week went something like this: ‘How does it work, then? Women’s cricket?’ ‘It’s a bit like men’s cricket. Only with...women.’ ‘That sounds like my idea of heaven. Sitting in a sun with a pint, watching all those girls run around’.

- SD