Wimbledon is drawing to a close, and so it’s time to break lances over the issue of prize money. Specifically, over the perennial stumbling block of the women getting the same prize money as the men. Should they or shouldn’t they?
Wielding a lance for the con side this year is Gilles Simon, world No. 13. His jousting opponents are Maria Sharapova, world No. 1, and Serena Williams, probably still the world’s best player.
The contest proves yet again that equal pay for equal work has replaced most Biblical commandments as a principle to live by. Equal pay, sure, we can all understand that, no problem there. In some fields, however, the difficulty starts with the definition of what exactly constitutes equal work.
For example, two persons, regardless of their sex, design bridges at the same engineering company. One, however, is responsible for high-profile structures spanning rivers in the centre of great cities. The other designer specialises in farmland bridges over irrigation canals. Should they be paid the same? No sane person would answer in the affirmative. Even without looking at the company’s balance sheet, it’s clear that the first designer generates infinitely more revenue than the second. So he should be paid more. Fair’s fair.
In those few sports where women and men compete against one another (chess springs to mind), the issue doesn’t arise: whoever wins gets a fatter cheque. The problem is, men and women don’t compete in the same tennis tournaments, and no one who has ever hit a tennis ball in anger thinks they should. For if they did, it would be more like a slaughterhouse than a sporting event: the women wouldn’t get a game.
John McEnroe was once asked how the sexes would fare against each other. In his younger days Mac was known to handle the odd hot potato, but this one was clearly burning his mouth. He tried to evade the answer, but the reporter persisted – he knew good copy when he saw it. Finally, the erstwhile brat relented: ‘Any full-time male player,’ he admitted sheepishly, ‘including veterans, juniors and American college players would beat any woman on the tour.’ Mac was talking about well over 1,000 players, yet most experts would admit off the record that his estimate was too generous. For example, a good British county player, even if he has a day job, would probably beat either Maria or Serena.
Does that mean women should get less money? Not by itself it doesn’t. It’s an unfortunate physiological fact that men are stronger, faster and leaner than women. That’s why their best speed over 100m is 10 percent faster than women’s, that’s why they can bench-press much higher weights. And that’s why they can hit the tennis ball harder and get to it more quickly, other things being equal.
Unfortunately, other things aren’t equal. For, even assuming their biological inequality, there’s no reason under the Wimbledon sun why women can’t develop the same technique as men, why they can’t hit all the same shots, albeit a bit slower.
That, alas, isn’t the case. For example, neither Maria nor Serena can volley as well as a good male club player can. Neither of them can hit a decent sliced backhand. Both have a lot of double faults because neither can kick a second serve, again a shot in the repertoire of any good male player. Even more damagingly, neither can really construct a point with any intelligent foresight. All they ever do is whack flattish backcourt drives accompanied by orgasmic, borderline feral, shrieks. The point ends when one of those piledrivers hits the net or back fence. Another shriek, this time of a frustrated caged animal. Next point; more of the same.
At least, even though Sharapova is still too slow, these particular ladies have clearly put in enough time off the court, turning themselves into athletes. Most of their colleagues haven’t; all the men in the Wimbledon 128 have. No biological excuse works here: women in athletics, rowing, cycling and just about any other sport this side of curling show that a woman can become a real athlete. Yet some years ago, the Dutch Wimbledon winner Richard Krajicek described most female players as ‘fat pigs’. Gentlemen don’t talk about ladies that way, but a brief scan of the women competing this year will reveal more spare tyres than one would find at an average Michelin dealership.
Thus they don’t work as hard as the men off the court, either to develop their bodies or to hone their shots. Nor do they work as hard on it: the average duration of a women’s match in any Grand Slam event is less than half of the men’s. Add to this the infinitely longer hours that the men put in on the running track, practice courts and in the gym, and we realise that their hourly pay is perhaps a third of the women’s.
Did Simon mention any of this? He didn’t. He realised that none of this would matter from the commercial standpoint, if only women generated higher ticket sales and TV revenues. His point was that they don’t. And even though Gilles didn’t quote any numbers, they do confirm his remark: equally ranked male players draw much higher crowds and TV audiences than their female counterparts.
‘Maria’s way hotter than he is,’ said Williams, and Sharapova agreed: ‘I’m sure there are a few more people that watch my matches than his,’ she said. If they do, it’s not for tennis reasons: most spectators at tennis matches are themselves players, and they use the occasions as free lessons. Simon may not be the most exciting player, but he’s one of the most intelligent. Hackers like me can learn a lot from watching the way he thinks through a rally. What can we learn from Sharapova? We already know how to whack the ball and pray it’ll go in. And we can scream with the best of them.
If you ever watch tennis, which match would you rather see, Nadal vs. Federer (world Nos 2 and 3) or Azarenka vs. Radwanska (ditto)? Thought so. Or replace either man with Djokovic or either woman with Sharapova – your answer, provided it’s honest, will be the same. Unless, of course, you’re a sucker for the combination of long legs and short skirts.
The fact is that since the retirement of Justin Henin, the happy exception to the drab rule, watching women play tennis has all the excitement of a curling, or gurning, contest. Calling what they do equal work for which they are entitled to equal pay can only make sense at a feminist rally.
‘We fought for years [to get equal pay],’ declares Williams. The same effort should have gone into developing a professional volley, then perhaps she would be justified in her pronouncements. Meanwhile, someone ought to start a campaign for the men getting equal hourly wages with the women. Who knows, the PC brigade may prove less than invincible.