The sexist tennis pay racket
As the sport is plunged into a new equality row, our reporter asks why female players still earn more based on their looks
Published 24/03/2016 | 02:30
Another week, another row about sexism in sport - this time, in the world of tennis, with both sides getting stuck in as if rallying for a match-winning score in a Wimbledon final.
On Monday, world number one Novak Djokovic plunged head first into the (never-ending) debate over equality in the game, suggesting male players should earn more than their female counterparts for the straightforward - as it seemed to him - reason that they attracted larger audiences.
"The stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the mens' tennis matches. I think that's one of the reasons why maybe we should get awarded more," said the Serb, displaying all the tact of John McEnroe frankly exchanging opinions with an umpire.
"Women should fight for what they think they deserve and we should fight for what we think we deserve."
His comments naturally whipped the internet into a froth of indignation. However, they did not exactly drop from the clear blue sky. The US Open champion made his remarks several days after a prominent official accused the women's game of benefiting from the success of men's tennis.
"When I come back in my next life I want to be someone in [women's tennis] because they ride on the coattails of the men," said Raymond Moore of the high-profile Indian Wells tennis tournament in southern California.
"If I was a lady player, I'd go down every night on my knees and thank god that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born because they have carried this sport. They really have."
In this age of extreme political correctness such opinions were never going to fly and Moore duly tendered his resignation. Yet his comments have nonetheless reignited the debate over the position of women in the sport.
Here, the most telling statistic is that number seven ranking Maria Sharapova thoroughly out-earned the world's best female tennis player, Serena Williams in 2015. It's 12 years since Sharapova - whose future in the sport must be in doubt after she failed a drugs test - defeated Williams on the court. But so far as sponsors are concerned, there is only one winner, with the Russian earning $23 million in endorsements and $6.7 in prize money last year - far ahead of Serena Williams' combined revenues of $24.6 million.
"Maria Sharapova… earns significantly more, and it's likely because she's willowy, white, and blonde, while Williams is a black woman with prominent, athletic muscles - as is often pointed out, sometimes disparagingly," wrote Marc Bain in Atlantic Monthly.
"The suggestion is that female athletes are marketable - which is to say that the public can connect with them, and be persuaded to buy things by them - only insofar as they look a certain way."
The suspicion that a female athlete's marketability is determined by their perceived beauty is backed by academic analysis.
"In this year's Wimbledon [tennis championship] Anna Kournikova was hailed as one of the best role models for women's tennis and this is a woman who isn't as good as the Williams sisters or Mary Pierce," Priscilla Choi, of Keele University told the British Association for the Advancement of Science conference in 2013.
"Women in sports are still being valued more for what they look like... It is the more feminine athletes who also get more sponsorships."
That tennis should be a flashpoint for the debate about gender inequality in athletics might be considered a surprise. Of all major sports, it is arguably the one in which women fare best. In soccer, rugby and, to a lesser degree, track and field, men thoroughly overshadow women in media exposure and earnings.
In tennis, however, women are generally regarded as equals (prize money is the same for both genders in the major tournaments).
Then, maybe that is precisely why sexism is such an issue. When entrenched views are challenged, the push back tends to be more pronounced. Certainly, no other female athlete has had to endure the opprobrium directed at Serena Williams, ridiculed for being physically imposing and with a strong will to win.
Moreover, female tennis stars have had to run the gamut of stereotypes concerning women being "more emotional" than men - a charge invariably laid by a male tennis player.
"You know, the girls, they are more unstable emotionally than us," said South African pro Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in 2013. "I'm sure everybody will say it's true, even the girls. It's just about hormones and all this stuff."
"Obviously I don't think any woman should be down on their knees thanking anybody like that," was Williams's dignified response to Moore's statement. In the press, she was applauded for plainly speaking the truth.
However, the unpalatable fact is neither Moore nor Djokovic are rogue voices. To portray a multi-millionaire such as Serena Williams as victim is absurd. Yet this week's rumble nevertheless suggests that even in 2016 successful women are too often judged by their looks rather than their achievements.
Match point goes to the knuckle-draggers yet again.
Tennis' top female earners of 2015
1 Maria Sharapova: $29.75 million
2 Serena Williams: $24.6 million
3 Caroline Wozniacki: $14.6 million
4 Ana Ivanovic: $8.3 million
5 Petra Kvitova: $7.7 million
6 Simona Halep: $6.8 million