TENNIS

Don’t blame market forces for disadvantaged female tennis stars

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When the opening serve is hit at Wimbledon next week, it will mark the 15th anniversary of equal prize money being offered at all four tennis Grand Slam events. The men’s and women’s singles champions will each receive £2million in prize money, while anyone who falls in the first round will walk away with a check for £50,000.

Although Billie Jean King’s successful campaign for equal awards came into effect at the 1973 US Open, it wasn’t until 2001 that the Australian Open followed suit. Wimbledon and the French Open finally came on board in 2007.

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To the casual observer – the type who catches Wimbledon highlights every July and perpetually waits for Roger Federer’s next title – it might seem like the story ends there. But professional tennis goes further than the Grand Slams. Unfortunately, equal pay in sport does not.

Consider Iga Świątek, the world’s most famous tennis player, the 21-year-old two-time Grand Slam champion from Poland, the totally dominant world number one and probably the best since Serena Williams. Since late February, Świątek has appeared in six tournaments and won each of them – most recently the French Open – tying a 22-year-old record with his 35-game winning streak and amassing $5.7 million in cash. price.

Not much to complain about, for sure. Except that if a male player had achieved the same feats during the same period on the men’s circuit, he would have earned almost $2 million more, or a bonus of 34%.

Outside of the four Grand Slam tournaments, men’s prize money is often higher than women’s – even at joint tournaments – and men also have more tournaments to compete in.

For example, last February’s tournaments in Dubai, although nominally of equal rank for the men’s and women’s circuits, awarded $523,740 to the men’s champion and only $104,180 to the women. And in April, while the two biggest women’s tournaments offered just over $250,000 in prize money, the men handed out almost $1.4 million.

Combining all tournaments except the Grand Slams, the total prize money awarded on the men’s circuit so far this year is 75% higher than on the women’s circuit, the largest gap since 2001.

Two justifications are often given for this disparity. The first is that women spend less time on the pitch and therefore do not deserve equal pay. That’s flat out wrong, because outside of Grand Slams, both sexes play best-of-three sets. It’s also unclear why more time on the court should necessarily mean a better show. Few of the highest quality Grand Slam finals have gone to a deciding set and, if time were money, then Nicolas Mahut and John Isner would be the highest paid tennis players of all time.

The second response to these numbers is that the free market has decided that men’s tennis is a more valuable commodity. But the events of the French Open last month show the flaws in this theory.

Explaining her decision to schedule men’s rather than women’s matches for nine of the 10 prime-time night sessions, tournament director and former Wimbledon champion Amélie Mauresmo explained: “Right now. . . you have more attraction, attraction [in] general, for men’s matches. Meanwhile, women’s matches almost invariably remain first on the court in the morning, when attendance numbers — both in person and on TV — are at their lowest.

Far from being a free market, subjective decisions like these have a real influence on which players have the best chance of breaking into a mass audience and creating a market of paying consumers.

One of the big mistakes in sport is that if the quality is high, the audience will come. If so, Świątek would be the biggest show in town. But in reality, sport is a soap opera: we come for the people behind the rackets, their stories, their rivalries.

Netflix is ​​currently filming a documentary about the top players of both genders as they navigate this year’s Slams. I hope this is a sign of things to come. Give the rising generation of female stars their share of the glory, give them their share of the money, and watch the sport as a whole thrive.

john.burn-murdoch@ft.com, @jburnmurdoch

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