June 02, 2011
I’ll let you in on a secret jealously guarded by the God of PC: Equal prize money for men and women at the Grand Slam tennis tournaments is an insult to every principle of fairness—including equal pay for equal work. The pay is equal; the work isn’t.
Every ex-pro doing TV commentary knows this. But tennis commentators also know how the cookie crumbles. One un-PC strike and you’re out, especially when comparing the women’s game to the men’s. Only once did John McEnroe let the cat out of the bag. Pestered for the umpteenth time about how he’d do against Serena, he said that any full-time male player could beat any woman. When similarly queried about women’s tennis, French veteran Guy Forget reportedly shrugged and said, “C’est une autre chose.” A different thing then. It’s only the prize money that’s the same.
I’m not one of those curmudgeons who begrudge athletes their incomes. The world’s best at anything should be—and always have been—properly rewarded. The 128 men vying for the €1.2 million top prize at the ongoing French Open are among the best in the world, and so are the players competing in the various junior and senior age groups. But if we believe McEnroe, and he knows his tennis, their women colleagues are nowhere near the top couple of thousand, and yet even a first-round loser went home with €25,000—a little more than Britain’s average annual income.
As I write this, Sky TV pundits, including Mats Wilander, Frew McMillan, and assorted British ex-pros, are negotiating their way around numerous sensitivity traps. With the same footloose dexterity they used to display on the courts, they heap superlatives on every routine put-away by a female player while trying to ignore the kind of shortcomings that would shame my club doubles partner. Still, occasionally they let things slip.
Thus Chris Wilkinson (once a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon) on Maria Sharapova: “She doesn’t know how to brush the back of the ball to get topspin on her second serve…not much feel at the net…can only play one way…no Plan B….” And Mats Wilander, seven-time Grand Slam winner, on Caroline Wozniacki, world No. 1: “Her slice isn’t a professional stroke…no real weapons…needs to learn to hit with more pace….”
Other commentators wouldn’t be outdone: “Can’t move as well as the men…few can volley…don’t play with much imagination…don’t know how to hit a topspin serve…she doesn’t look like a natural athlete….” Hardly a women’s match goes by without the commentator making the kind of helpful suggestions one would expect from a club coach paid £30 a hour to teach a novice to take his racquet back early.
Whenever we compare men and women players, we must allow for the natural physiological differences: Men are stronger and faster. Though a tennis stroke is a matter of timing more than musculature, we shouldn’t expect a woman to hit a serve at 150MPH or a forehand at 110. However, there’s no physiological explanation for why women can’t develop the same technique as the men. They just can’t.
Tennis is a highly technical game. Add together the choice of three basic spins on the forehand, backhand, and serve, consider various volleys, half-volleys, lobs, service returns, and drop shots, and you’ll get at least 25 strokes making up any good player’s essential repertoire. Every man in a major’s main draw can hit each one of these 25 strokes well. Perhaps not equally well: Many players make their living on the baseline and aren’t natural at volleying. But they can all volley competently when made to do so.
How many of these 25 strokes have most of their female colleagues mastered? In broad numbers, three: flattish first serve and two flattish ground strokes. That’s why their matches resemble rallying practice sessions accompanied by feral shrieks: thump-shriek-thump-shriek-thump into the back fence-squeal of a mortally wounded animal. No attempt to construct the point, no flair for the unexpected, no discernible strategy—just thump and shriek.
To be fair, there are exceptions. Francesca Schiavone has most shots. Samantha Stosur can kick her second serve. Vera Zvonareva knows how to work a rally. And stroke-for-stroke, the recently retired Justine Henin was at least equal to any man—with her backhand superior to most. But these exceptions prove the rule: Most women either can’t or won’t develop a well-rounded technique.
They have no such limitations in other fields. Female musicians and singers aren’t technically inferior to their male colleagues. Nor are women artists. Nor are women writers. Nor, closer to our subject, are women runners, jumpers, or cyclists. So what brings out the worst in female tennis pros?
It’s not only technique: Unlike women in other sports, most female tennis players don’t have the conditioning of professional athletes. In a recent comparative survey of different sports, male tennis players were among the fittest athletes, while the women among the least fit. In other words, most female tennis players don’t work hard enough on their game’s technical or physical aspects.
Richard Krajicek, 1996 Wimbledon winner, once ungraciously said that “75 percent of the top 100 women are fat pigs.” A gentleman doesn’t talk about ladies that way, but many female players have physiques that more naturally belong in GQ than Tennis World. A few years ago GQ ran nude shots of two top players, having paid a seven-digit fee for the dubious privilege. And Caroline Wozniacki’s scantily clad, overfed body can be ogled on countless websites, including her own. (I’ve conducted the research personally—strictly for professional reasons, you understand.)
Perhaps this hints at the problem: Female players who look good in or out of clothes can have lucrative careers without having to hit tennis balls all that well. Take, for example, one blonde girl, long since retired, who never won a WTA tournament. In her only meaningful contribution to Grand Slams she once decided an Australian Open’s final by having entertained one of the participants throughout the night before, rendering him barely able to walk. Even though her on-court athleticism and creativity were nowhere near the same standard as Wozniacki’s, the girl has made millions modeling clothes, doing TV shows and commercials, and posing for the kind of pictures that got photographers arrested a generation ago. Following in her footsteps, Sharapova has amassed a reputed $90-million fortune, though less than $15 million of that was won on the tennis court. (Racquets don’t feature prominently in her alluring Google Images.)
While men pros concentrate on their job, women let outside interests take over. Practice courts, gyms, and running tracks are no competition for catwalks and studios. Many, including the Williams sisters, stop playing full-time. Some, like our blonde vixen of Aussie Open fame, stop playing altogether. There’s no need.
There is no justification for women getting equal prize money. And the commercial argument doesn’t work, either. Men play best-of-five matches, while the ladies only go best-of-three. Statistically, men’s matches are twice as likely to go to four sets as women’s to three, and many go to five. If men play twice as long, pro rata they get paid half as much.
The longer men’s matches also mean more commercial breaks and bigger TV revenues. And it’s not only the number of minutes, it’s also the ratings. If one channel were showing a match between Nadal and Federer (#1 and #3 in the world) and another between Wozniacki and Zvonareva (ditto), which one would you watch? Thought so. So would millions of others.
Ultimately, neither sporting nor commercial considerations led to equal prize money for women. It resulted from a sustained political campaign started by Billie Jean King in 1973, when the Women’s Tennis Association was founded specifically for this purpose. The campaign then gathered speed. Although the US Open surrendered that very year, Wimbledon and the French didn’t succumb until 2007. But in the end injustice prevailed. Whenever this happens, we are all the poorer for it.