Unless there is a huge change in society and in terms of tennis, a move back to the dark ages, there is no going back on the decision. Giving women equal pay was to bring tennis into the 21st century, an acknowledgement that the women were giving their all in the same way the men do.
Now the main argument against equal prize money in tennis, at grand slam level, is that the two events are not the same; the men play best-of-five set matches and the women (only) best of three. Why should they be paid the same when they are not putting in as much “effort”?
But as is continually overlooked in this debate, the difference in physiology between men and women means that both sexes are putting in just as much effort as each other. For a woman to play a lung-busting three-set match is just as much effort as for a man to play a five-setter.
With £23,000 being given to first-round losers, the simple thinking might be that someone who loses 6-1, 6-1 in round one is onto a nice little earner. But for the vast majority of those first-round losers, earning a place in the main draw of a grand slam event is something that has required years of hard work, dedication and a lot of sacrifice. It used to be said that Wimbledon’s fondness for giving wildcards to home players was unfair and effectively funding their year, but in recent times, the rule of thumb that a British player has to be inside the world’s top 250 to even stand a chance of getting one has changed that.
The lack of strength in depth in the women’s game was another stick with which to beat it and there are plenty of people who still shake their heads when the first round is littered with one-sided victories. But it might be pointed out that in last year’s Wimbledon, 31 of the 64 men’s first-round matches were over in straight sets (including a number of retirements). (It was 43 in the women’s event, for the record.) No one pointed the finger at Albert Ramos when he won three games against Roger Federer in round one; yet plenty did as the big guns in the women’s event cruised through.
There is no difference in how much effort a woman has to make to be a top-level tennis player to that of a man. There is no difference in the cost of their equipment. Coaches cost the same kind of money as the men, hotels are no cheaper for women, airlines don’t charge women less. Their parents make the same sacrifices for their daughters as for their sons, when it comes to being a glorified taxi service and investors in their child’s dreams.
Could women play five sets? Of course they could and not that long ago, the season-ending WTA Championships had a five-set final. But the standard dropped as the matches wore on and the competitiveness diminished. Would TV companies like it if women’s matches were the best of five sets at grand slams, reducing the number of matches they could cover each day? I doubt it. Tennis is one of the few sports that has men and women competing alongside each other, if not together (mixed doubles is an obvious exception) and tournaments benefit from having both.
In fact there is a pretty good argument to be had that the men and women should play just the best of three sets in slams, for their own long-term health. The growing number of injury problems on the men’s Tour, in part no doubt because of the wear and tear on hard courts, might be reduced if they only had to play three sets. The finals of Masters 1000s used to be five sets; now they are three.
But the overwhelming argument in favour of equal prize money is that it is about equality. The clue is in the words. If you suggest to women that they can play tennis, by all means, but they won’t be able to make as much money as the men and won’t be on a level footing, what kind of message does that convey? It took an awful lot of struggle and effort to get to this point. Equal prize money is here to stay.