If you look at the issue of the distribution of prize money just from within the frame of reference of this single tournament, it might seem a great injustice that Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova, but especially the latter, are walking away from the 2012 Australian Open with the same paydays as Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
Why are women getting paid the same amount as the men?
That at least seems to be the sentiment of an unknown but clearly increasingly more vocal whatever number of tennis fans: “and Sharapova get the same prize money as Nadal???? what a joke women’s tennis is!!” by Guest in the comments section of this recent article.
“Well, Rafa and Novak play 6 hours to earn the same money as women who play 80 min. Nothing against women, but equal prize money is an absolute joke,” said someone named Srini in this one.
These are just two representative examples I quickly searched for and easily found of a sentiment I’ve read and heard variations of for at least the last year as one women’s Grand Slam after another ended with a proverbial whimper. (A reference, for the record, to the last line of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” You know, just in case anyone misinterprets, deliberately or otherwise.) If the WTA continues its lackluster quality of product, especially compared to the ATP, it follows that the kinds of comments like I quoted will only continue to grow in frequency and intensity.
To formulate a response to such feelings as expressed above, it’s worth looking at the debate that took place just six years ago.
In 2006, the French Open equalized the prize money for the men’s and women’s singles champions, but maintained a larger overall for the men’s draw.
At the same time, the All England Club decided that Wimbledon, in essentially a symbolic gesture, was going to continue to award different amount of prize money to men and women.
In the debate leading up to and after that decision by the All England Club, several different cases were publicly made as to why continuing the different prize money pools would be the wrong decision.
Venus Williams, then defending Wimbledon champion, after the decision, wrote that she was “disappointed that the home of tennis is sending a message to women across the world that we are inferior.”
Larry Scott, then WTA Tour executive, asserted, “In the 21st century, it is morally indefensible that women competitors in a Grand Slam tournament should be receiving considerably less money than their male counterparts.”
Billie Jean King cast the issue in terms of entertainment. “Entertainers don’t get paid by the hour. They get paid, period. If Elton John does a concert, it could last one hour or four hours. It’s a done deal.”
Ironically enough, one of the most sensible quotes at the time came from then (just) 19-year-old Maria Sharapova. “I understand that our TV ratings at the Grand Slams are pretty much equal to and often better than the men.”
It’s all about ratings.
In 2007, both Wimbledon and the French Open joined the other two Slams in offering fully equal prize pools for the genders.
Right now in early 2012 the ATP has three genuine “superstars” — defined by on-court performance and off-court charisma — in their primes. It has great rivalries taking place, and superlative tennis is being played by the top men on the sports’ biggest stages.
The WTA? Meh.
However, my fundamental point is even if there is current dearth of genuinely compelling tennis taking place in the WTA — but not lack of talented and hardworking athletes, and potential superstars — the dynamics of the superlative players, star power, and the attention-getting (and ratings-drawing) rivalries are ever-changing over time. Five or six years from now it could very well be the women’s draw that is carrying the load for both tours in the Grand Slams. That has been the truth before.
My response to those who say women don’t deserve the same prize money as men in tennis:
No matter what happens at any particular event, or even series of events, it’s worth considering the equal prize pools for both men and women in the Grand Slams to be a capital investment in the long-term infrastructure of the sport as a whole.