By Mark Lawson (THE GUARDIAN, 23/02/07):
This newspaper recently made a stand for professional equality by deciding that both men and women who appear on stage and screen will be termed “actors”. But, in showbusiness, fairness of opportunity and income having largely been achieved, language remained the final gap. In tennis, it was the other way round: though granted a unisex job description – players – men and women have played under different rules for widely divergent prizes.
Yesterday’s announcement that the 2007 women’s champion at Wimbledon will receive the same cash as (let’s madly dream) Andy Murray finally removes a 39-year insult that began when, in the first open Wimbledon, Billie Jean King received a cheque two-thirds smaller than that handed to Rod Laver, her partner at the champion’s ball. While the deficit was down to 5% by last year, the distinction still remained an apparent statement of the lesser worth of women, long ago abolished at the equivalent American and Australian grand slams.
Mrs King also featured, almost 35 years ago, in a key moment in this debate. Challenged to a match by 55-year-old former champion Bobby Riggs, who had declared the absolute superiority of men in the sport, she whipped him in straight sets. Logically, Wimbledon should have balanced its payouts then, but the considerable age gap between King and Riggs complicated the issue, allowing the sexist economics to survive.
The wage gap, though, existed for inevitable historical reasons. Professional sport was a creation by men for men and those underlying assumptions have proved tough to break. The truth is that – however assiduously women’s football, cricket and rugby are encouraged – it is unlikely that millions of viewers will ever tune in to see a Paula Gascoigne or Andrea Flintoff in the finals of their tournaments. The sports that involve physical contact or some risk of death – major ball games and motor racing – simply seem more susceptible to testosterone. Hormones are more directly implicated in the difference between the profiles of male and female games. The fact that men are biologically hard-wired to bulk up has given them an advantage in tests of strength. This fact is not sexism but merely sex, and is underlined by the history of crippled female athletes who have tried to close the gap through chemical intervention.
What’s strange about tennis taking so long to achieve financial equality is that, apart from athletics, there is no other sport in which the major indicators – fitness, skill and television exposure – have for so long been so equal for both men and women. Steffi Graf and her husband Andre Agassi, in their primes, were equally famous and interchangeably attractive to advertisers.
This raises an issue more interesting than prize money. As the traditional objection to equal prize money – apart from primitive chauvinism – has been the fact that women play best of three rather than the five required of men, the question now is whether the cheque should be dependent on the sets.
The strongest argument for equalising the rules as well as the loot is that the shorter women’s game was at first dictated by the prejudice that skirted contestants were physically weaker, and sustained more recently by a belief that the women’s tour was less exciting.
The body objection has been decisively knocked down since Martina Navratilova and then Venus and Serena Williams out-biceped Henman among many other men. Any assumption that men automatically provide the better spectacle was equally challenged by the era of the baseline bangers and then the easy superiority of first Pete Sampras and then Roger Federer. In fact, the near-invincibility of the Swiss master might encourage a reversal of the argument towards the view that the blokes should be brought down to the women’s level and the result decided in the third.
But that would be a loss. From the fabled Borg-McEnroe match in which opposite geniuses equalled each other to Andy Murray’s breakthrough games in his short career, the best tennis encounters have been the longest. Despite the practical problems of tournaments becoming longer and less television-friendly, women players should match their extra dosh with extra sets.
Serious consideration should also be given to male-female matches, for exhibition or competition. The fiasco of King-Riggs made such contests seem a joke, but Graf-Sampras would have been an interesting encounter, as would Federer-Williams. Then tennis could follow the logic of the Wimbledon cash change and join athletics as a sport in which genuine equality has been achieved.