Moved the Baseline

Tennis is one of the world’s most popular sports with more than a billion followers and it’s also the best sport for women. This spikes the head to question “why”.

To say the least, all the major tennis tournaments, the Grand Slams in particular, pay men and women equally. To add on, women are further attracting wide range of endorsements, just like men in tennis. Female players make up five of the top ten highest earning tennis athletes.

This data sounds all the more appealing when compared to stats of other popular sports like basketball, football, cricket and golf. There are 52 NBA players who alone make more money than the entire WNBA league combined. According to a recent BBC report, women are paid 1.88 percent of what men are in the Cricket World Cup, 2.88 percent of what men are in the Football World Cup, and 31 percent of what men get paid in major golf tournaments.

So, not surprisingly, seven of the top ten earning women athletes are tennis players. In the Forbes’ list of 100 top paid athletes, only three are women and all of them are tennis players. What’s more interesting is that the same number of male tennis players feature in the list.

So has tennis been this way ever since? The answer is no. It was an equality fight well fought.

At the first Open Wimbledon women received 40 percent of what men did. Billie Jean King won £750 for taking the title while Rod Laver won £2,000. In 1969, women commonly earned 20 percent of what men did at smaller tournaments. Situation only got worst in 1970, when women just earned 8.3 percent of what men did. King said, “Promoters were making more money. Male tennis players were making more money. Everybody was making more money except the women”. In 1970 Margaret Court won the Grand Slam and received only a $15,000 bonus, whereas the men could achieve up to $1 million.

The bias was huge, so how did women’s tennis succeed at equal pay?

 Stacey Allaster, head of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), who has played a big role in that development, answered this question recently and highly credited Billie Jean King for the development.

In 1972 King won 40 percent of her what male counterpart did at the US Open. It was the time she was forming the WTA to promote women’s tour and to end gender bias. An American star at the time, she threatened to boycott the US Open if the prize money were not made equal. And thus with the continuous efforts of King and other women, in 1973, US Open became the first major to offer equal prize money.

battle of the sex

King further beat the sexist Bobby Riggs in straight sets in the popular ‘Battle of the Sexes’ match- the match was the zeitgeist of equality in tennis. A record 50 million audience, approximately 4 times the audience of Roger-Rafa’s epic 2008 Wimbledon final, viewed the match. As King said, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tour and affect the self esteem of all women.”

After scrapping the equal pay demands for years, Australian Open came along in the year 2000, increasing men’s pay by 10percent and women’s pay by 15.8percent, making it equal at 450,000 USD.

It was at 93 percent of pay in 2006. A public opinion campaign was launched in France and Britain. WTA presented the data that showed their sponsorship revenues were very strong. It had a strong political campaign in business leaders like Richard Branson. Tessa Jowell, the minister of sport in Britain, was able to get Tony Blair on the House of Commons floor to say that Wimbledon should pay equal prize money.

Venus Williams, with her gift of diplomacy, further aced it as she talked to the All England Committee about equal prize money during Wimbledon 2007. Wimbledon, followed by French Open in a month’s time, came in line with the other two slams with regard to equal pay in 2007, marking equality of pay in the Grand Slams.

Tennis has thus become the beacon of hope for wage equality between the sexes in the professional sports. It shows that people are interested in watching females play sports. The most popular female tennis players, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka, Caroline Wozniacki and Ana Ivanovic are significantly more popular than many male players. While most people know who Serena Williams is, it is doubtful that many people who don’t watch tennis know who David Ferrer is.

 So are we there yet? Yes and no!

Women coaches are still underestimated, but the likes of Andy Murray, Amelie Mauresmo and Lindsay Davenport are shutting critics like no ones business. William sisters are still facing subtle racism, which the likes of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant never have, but we have more people speaking for Williams than against them.

Serena Williams and Eugenie Bouchard found themselves at the centre of a sexism row at the Australian Open 2014, after Channel 7‘s Ian Cohen asked both to “give a twirl” in front of the Melbourne crowd, something no one would ever tell Rafa and Roger- but again it didn’t go unnoticed and was widely critiqued.

Tennis has thus not closed all gender gaps and stereotyping yet, but it’s certainly moving in the right direction.

The head of the United Nations entity for gender equality and women’s empowerment declared on March 16- the greater participation of women and girls in sports can help lift their involvement in society, fight gender stereotypes and accelerate progress towards gender parity.

Tennis is a stellar vehicle for the mantle of feminism. It’s treading towards greatness and contributing in ways visible to the naked eye. Their game is absolutely sublime, and as women’s participation in sports is seen as a key to boosting gender equality, tennis could be proudly used as a gender-equality model for all sports.

Nidhi Agarwal

Women in Business_Bocconi Female Students Association