The Vagenda

Game, Set and Snatch


The grunting. The sinister parent/coach/jailor lurking in the background. The ever more creative attempts to design an eye catching outfit whist restricted to ‘white’ and ‘must be able to play tennis in it’. Wimbledon is here again, and if you don’t care about tennis there’s still plenty to enjoy. 
Tennis is one of those happy few sports where the women’s game is treated pretty much on a par with the men’s. Unlike football, rugby or cricket, where the sight of a woman on the pitch is enough to spark a mass exodus of stadiums, people actually get excited about watching women play tennis. Because of the tennis!*
Well, ok, not just because of the tennis. But there’s a surprising amount of parity between the ridiculous non-tennis things as well. While it doesn’t get talked about very much, presumably because it’s more interesting to discuss women athletes making noises that sound a bit like sex, the men do grunt too. And we’ve all shuddered a little at the sight of Judi Murray, sitting courtside like some kind of bird of prey who taught her child how to rip the heads off mice and now wants to check they’re doing it right. 
And, while women definitely lead the way in bizarre Wimbledon fashion choices, I don’t think any of us who were there to see it will ever forget. This:
Or indeed this:


But there is an area where, until a few years ago, things were decidedly not equal: how much you get paid. 


I realise we’re not talking equal pay issues like the rest of the country is talking equal pay issues here. The winner of Wimbledon gets over a million quid – what’s a few thousand here and there? Until 2007, it was a few thousand here or there, with men receiving £655,000 compared to women’s £625,000. But get down to the lower orders, where players struggle to get to the first round and get a couple of thousand for it, and it actually really matters. 
The disparity was fixed in 2007, and both sexes are now rewarded for winning with the eye watering sum of £1,150,000. But, like Lleyton Hewitt in a Wimbledon quarter final, the debate just refuses to lie down and die. World no. 13 Gilles Simon reopened the controversy last week. ‘I don’t think equal money works. In sport’ he added, cleverly sidestepping accusations that he just doesn’t like the thought of a woman getting as much money as him, period. ‘Tennis is the only sport today where we have parity, even though men’s tennis remains more attractive than women’s. At this time.’
Leaving aside suggestions that we should conduct ‘attractiveness reviews’ at regular intervals to decide how much players are worth, what’s he on about? Having done some extensive polling of opinionated friends and colleagues, I have identified three separate arguments for why Wimbledon shouldn’t be paying female players as much.
1.) Women don’t spend as long on court
Best of three matches are generally over quicker than best of five. Well, duh. So do we pay prize money according to how much time is spent on court? If so, then we should dock some of Simon’s pay for crashing out of the second round in two and a half hours this year. Almost exactly the same time it took Maria Sharapova to win her second round match, and nearly an hour less than it took Caroline Wozniaki to win through to that round. By this logic, if you’re shit hot and winning every round in straight sets, you should be paid less for it. I’m not saying the women’s matches aren’t usually shorter. But if we’re paying based on time spent playing, the officials are going to have to get their calculators out.
2.) Women aren’t as good at tennis
No, really, this is an actual argument. It’s a classic, really – invent something, watch men do it, see what they do well, then have a looksee if women can do it too. Oooh, they do it differently. They’re not as good then. We like our female tennis players to be one of two varieties – cute (preferably Russian) blonde bombshells, or scary beefy man like hulks of tennis playing metal. If the former, then we have no interest in their ability to play tennis at all. Witness the celebrity status of long since retired Anna Kournikova. Bit shit at tennis, but PHWOARR.
Unfortunately, it’s the former that people remember, and then use to support the ‘women are crap at tennis’ argument – Kournikova has nothing on Federer! This is true. But also irrelevant.
3.) Women’s tennis isn’t as interesting, so pulls in less money
There could be something in this one. It costs less to see the women’s matches. I don’t know what the viewing figures are for each final, but I’m willing to bet the men pull in more. Best of three sets leave less room for twists and turns, epic fight backs – a couple of slip ups and it’s all over.So I hope, when Goran Ivanisevic, childhood hero of mine, waded into the debate to claim that ‘men’s tennis is more entertaining and appealing than women’s tennis’ he was referring to match length. Because if it’s about the tennis itself, then who gets to decide what’s entertaining? Maybe female players should start spitting on the ground, beating their chests and screaming ‘COME ON’ in between points a bit more? (Actually, a lot of them already do). Maybe Maria Sharapova could learn Irish dancing and deliver a quick rendition at changes of ends? The outfits are basically the same.
Given the choice, yeah, I’d probably rather go to the men’s final, because five set matches are more interesting. But Wimbledon prize money isn’t a salary based on how much money the sport pulls in. It’s prize money. It reflects how much the tournament values its champions.
But what do they players think? Well, Gilles isn’t alone in this. Trust him, ALL the other male players think it too. No, really, they do. They’re just not brave enough to say it. Not like Gilles. He is a lone wolf, a hero throwing himself on his sword to stand up for the rights of male tennis players everywhere: ‘The 128 players in the draw think like me, that’s for sure. Just ask them.’
Well, it’s been about a week now, and none of them have actually agreed with him. The only serious response has come from Maria Sharapova, who turns out to be as forthright with her opinions as she is with her forehand. ‘Look, we’ve fought so long to get equal prize money’ she replied. ‘It was a big challenge and nobody really supported us. We’re proud of it, and we continue to build the sport and make it bigger. No matter what anyone says, or the criticisms we get, I’m sure a few more people watch my matches than his, so…’
BOOM!Elsewhere, responses have been few and far between. Roger Federer, a great ambassador for tennis on whose words millions will hang, responded with characteristic fervour:
‘It’s just a matter of who believes what’ he said, passionately thumping the table with the force of his own opinions. ‘That is an endless debate. So, whatever you believe.’
Meanwhile Serena Williams, 234 time champion of Wimbledon and campaigner for women’s tennis, blasted ‘yeah, well, of course people watch Maria play more. She’s way hotter than him.’ There followed an intense debate with the reporters, in which Serena informed them she likes pink roses, because pink is her favourite colour, and she hasn’t had a date in, like forever. Way to take back the power, Serena.
Probably the most telling put down of all came from 19 year old American player Sloane Stephens, who summed up what we were all thinking with ‘I don’t care what he says. About anything.’ Nice one. Seriously, WTF? Isn’t ANYONE going to take a stand on this one?
Besides Sharapova’s fabulously withering putdown, the only really interesting response has come from Andy Murray, of all people. Yep, that guy who has dedicated all off court time to studiously developing a lack of expression, and just in case he’s left anything out, shields half his face during interviews and stares at the floor. Men don’t compete in singles and doubles at the same time any more, he pointed out, because they don’t have the energy. Women still do, and they sometimes win both. This earns them more money. This is unfair.
He’s right! If female players still have enough left in the tank to play doubles, why are they only playing best of three set matches? This is the reason the ladies’ singles tournament is less interesting. This is why your ticket to the ladies’ final costs less. This is why Gilles Simon still has a leg to stand on. Because, though he’s clearly a twat, his argument is just a teensy, tiny bit right. In no other sport do women play for less time, or have the bar set so much lower. Let them tough it out. Let’s have best of five set matches for all Grand Slam players, and then let’s see what argument Giles Simon and his army of anonymous misogynists can come up with next.
*By way of contrast, an upsetting exchange on Test Match Special’s discussion of women’s cricket last week went something like this: ‘How does it work, then? Women’s cricket?’ ‘It’s a bit like men’s cricket. Only with…women.’ ‘That sounds like my idea of heaven. Sitting in a sun with a pint, watching all those girls run around’.
- SD

15 thoughts on “Game, Set and Snatch

  1. The real problem is what you only touch-on at the end. Women playing only 3 sets is a hangover from days when women were considered too ‘weak’ to compete more fully.

    Make it 5 sets for all – end of problem.

    Just think, we get to run marathons and everything now …

  2. The women’s game generally isn’t competitive enough to sustain 5 sets, especially at the minute. The consistency just isn’t there. I would venture that most of the women would still win in 3, even if 5 sets were brought in. Or perhaps, conversely, it would make the game more competitive as the quality would have to be stepped up if there was the potential of 5 sets. Whatever the case is, I do think the female tennis tour needs a shake-up. I haven’t enjoyed following it for a long time, purely due to its inconsistency.

  3. Couldn’t agree more with this article. If we want equality, we have to level the playing field, and this is oddly one area where the playing field is tipped in women’s favour. Of course playing the best of three is easier (endurance wise) than best of 5.

    Women’s football doesn’t have shorter matches (though I’d be willing to bet they don’t even earn 10% of male players), women’s marathon’s aren’t shorter, women rowers don’t get shorter races or bigger oars, and plans to lower the basket in women’s basketball were slammed down a year or so back!

    We can and do compete on an equal footing in most sports, and I find the few that retain these archaic rules to be rather insulting.

  4. Best of 5 sets for women would be fantastic. I’d never really clocked it until now but that is the exact reason why I enjoy watching the men’s final more: they can go on for aaages and be very tense and exciting in a way that a 3-set match isn’t. I think it was the Federer-Nadal final a few years back that went on for practically an entire day, with a rain-break halfway through. That was fun watching!

    Out of curiosity, how many sets do mixed doubles play?

    Great article! I find the whole issue of women in sport very interesting. I’ve done a bit of reading and work on mountaineering history and it’s pretty fascinating to realise that, actually, there were a heck of a lot of tough ladies tramping up mountains in their crinolines (seriously…) in the eighteenth century, but it’s only the men in their tweeds who are popularly remembered. Mountaineering is an excellent thinking-point for issues relating to women in sport, actually, as there’s no way to set the bar lower – mountains are very egalitarian that way. And women have certainly proved themselves on mountains as far as I can tell! :)

  5. I think women’s tennis is competitive enough to sustain interest in 5 sets, and if it isn’t then surely the only way forward to improve this is to start playing 5 sets. I read recently that the WTA wanted to introduce 5 sets for women at slams but were turned down – anyone know if this is correct?

  6. Yesterday during the mixed doubles the male commentator said he thinks the men should take it ‘a tad’ easier when serving to the women! Virginia Wade’s response was something along the lines of ‘you idiot’ in tone.

  7. There is absolutely no way women would be *allowed* to play best of five. A few years back, a bunch of them including Elena Dementieva said, ‘fine, let’s play five sets. That’d be great’. Dementieva, one of the most physically fit players on the tour while she was playing, would certainly have been able to, but she was roundly ignored.

    But think of the scheduling. With weather interruptions, Slams sometimes run into a third week as it is. Let’s be crude and assume it’ll take another hour to complete a five-set versus a three. That’s another 64 hours of play to accommodate. How are you going to fit that on court? How are you going to get that into the TV schedules? (Don’t forget that the tournaments rely on TV money just as much as they do ticket sales.)

    Women players would be entirely physically able of playing five-set matches. Of course they would. But let’s not pretend that it’s in their control, or that the tournaments want it to happen.

    Men have to win seven matches in a row against the best players in the world. So do women. Men have to train their asses off. So do women. Women deserve equal prize money without a single shadow of doubt. And the fact that people complain about this, rather than celebrating that the women’s tennis game is (as you mention) one of the very very few that gets as much attention as the men’s, depresses me endlessly.

  8. And what about all those poor businesses, offices and public places, having to do all those costly alterations to allow disabled access. And they didn’t get a penny of it back!

    How dare organisations be so inconvenienced, and then also made to lose money in the pursuit of equality.

    Disgusting, if you ask me!

    (And yes, that was heavily sarcastic)

    Your argument seems to be that “change is hard so give up”. I wonder where we’d be right now if everyone thought like that. Oh, that’s right, I don’t need to wonder, I just have to look at what the world was like before people dud start pushing for change. Women would be considered chattel, little more than property, with absolutely no power, no money or property of her own, no rights or say over her own and her children lives, without even the right to bring charges against someone who commits a crime against her; able to be divorced for adultery but not to obtain a divorce for the same reason, able to have her children removed from her if her husband wishes it, able to be committed to an insane asylum or prison for no crime, other than her husband owns her and wants her there as punishment.

    Thank god there were people brave enough to stand up and say “This is wrong, it has to change” no matter how difficult that change might be.

  9. I disagree that tournaments would necessarily not want women’s matches to played over best of five. It might well revitalize interest in the women’s game, which has been languishing for years due to the startling lack of major, charismatic stars with interesting games, good technique, and real personality – only Serena W, Sharapova, and Clijsters really qualify. Serena and Clijsters are almost part-timers these days, due to other commitments, and Sharapova has had a whole host of injury problems. The fact that Serena, an amazing player but hardly a tour regular, is crushing the field at Wimbledon again speaks to a real lack of class, talent and consistency in the rest of the field. Revitalized interest might well lead to better ticket sales, which certainly at Roland Garros are a real problem, and to a certain extent at Flushing Meadows too.

    I’ve heard of premium tickets for the men’s final at Wimbledon going for over £15,000 per ticket on the secondary market. The same tickets for the women’s final will scarcely fetch a grand. That speaks volumes as to where the men’s and women’s games are at right now in terms of star power and public appeal.

  10. I agree with CM. To put it frankly, the women’s game is just not as interesting as the men’s. It’s overly reliant on a couple of key personalities. The crowds that watch them seem to often be waiting for the men to come on court after them and I really think it’s getting worse. If 5 sets would give it the shot in the arm that it needs then go for it, because the women’s game has always been overshadowed by the men’s and it’s in danger of being entirely overtaken. It’s depressing that, more often than not, when women’s tennis is brought up in the popular press it’s either related to what they’re wearing and how tight and short their outfits are or the issue of equal prize money.

  11. Please tell me you have read Polly Hudson’s new ‘article’ in the Mirror to do with Angelina and Jennifer Aniston…it made me crave eye bleach. Is it available yet?

  12. To be honest I always switch off women’s tennis, not because it’s boring (although there was a period when it was all about slamming the ball between the two baselines) and not because it’s not entertaining – I think it’s true that at the moment there are any number of female players who could reach the finals in tournaments, which keeps it from being all about 2 or 3 players. No, it’s the shrieking that has to accompany every single flaming shot.

    Yes, most of the guys grunt – when they make a strenuous effort (and, hey, I like it) but the women are so shrill and loud it makes your ears bleed. And for that reason alone I’d like it to be wiped out of existance. They do have some incredibly cute dresses, though.

  13. This is a really interesting debate. I would certainly support a trial of women playing 5 sets, it would be fascinating to see how it goes.
    In SD’s original appraisal of the ‘arguments against equal pay’, I think I’d like to play devil’s advocate and suggest reasons the men’s game is *potentially* more interesting:
    - Personality. Although this has already been raised, thereis, I think, more to say. The poster who raised the media’s fascination with female grunting hit the nail on the head; there seems to be a media bias, focusing more on women’s clothing choices, beauty and decibel levels, not their abilities and personalities. Players like Hantuchova and Ivanovic get huge attention for their looks, which is symptomatic of general Damn Patriarchy, but in this debate, retracts from more ‘interesting’ focuses such as hawkeye analysis of technique.
    - Serve speed. Men serve considerably faster than women at prof level, and that does generate significant hype. When big servers like Philipousis, Roddick and >sigh< Rusedski were actively pushing up the serve-speed record and aces-per-match record, that pulled in viewers. It's mind-boggling to see, and arguably spectators are less impressed, and less interested, in watching women whose best serves are roughly as good as top-class men's second serves.
    - Variety. This is horribly wooly, and there are notable exceptions (Mauresmo, both Williams). But in general, men’s matches can have a greater variety of shot selection and ‘risk’, through greater strength (e.g. whip forehands, squash shots) and greater speed (chasing drop shots, chasing lobs). Having just watched the women’s final, it was pretty clear that both finalists were leaving difficult shots, which became ‘winners’, which top men would chase, hit, and often produce really high calibre see-saw points. Whilst women Can and Do do all of these things, the frequency is lower, and far more women’s points are quite straightforward baseline rallies.

    Moreover, on an economic front there certainly IS an argument that people are paid for the value of their labour. Miners and sweat-shop stichers can work ‘as hard’ as bankers/lawyers, but their product has lower value, hence their lower pay. In the current women’s game (as has been pointed out), demand is far lower than for men’s, as reflected by ticket prices. This does suggest a pay disparity has a sound basis which cannot be written off by claiming prize money instead ‘reflects how much the tournament values its champions’.

    I have absolutely no conclusions to draw from all this, and reiterate my desire to see 5-set women’s matches at equal pay.

    An interesting non-caveat: