2007 was the first year that Wimbledon introduced totally equal prize funds for men and women. Until then it had maintained a position of isolation, insisting that the men’s best of five matches deserve more prize money than women’s best of three. The US and Australian opens offered equal prize money from first round losers to finalists, whilst the French open gives finalists the same reward, but has higher prize money for men in earlier rounds. It seemed perverse for Wimbledon to be different and there were few protests when equality was established last year.
However, the stark contrast in quality and excitement of the this year’s two championships has reignited the debate. Venus Williams and Rafael Nadal both took home £750,000 for winning their respective events and there can be little doubt that Nadal did more to earn his reward. He was at his absolute best in defeating top players Ernests Gulbis, Nicolas Kiefer, Mikhail Youzhny and Andy Murray on the way to his epic final with Roger Federer. The five set, seven hour final was one of the greatest matches ever played.
Venus and Serena Williams cruised through a draw that reflected the relative weakness of the women’s game. The sisters have been described as part-time players, picking and choosing their events on tour, yet they arrive at Wimbledon apparently under-prepared and take advantage of a draw decimated by top seeds going out early. It was apparent early on that they had few rivals for the title and whilst this was true of the men’s event as well, Nadal and Federer’s dominance was due more to their own brilliance than the weakness of their opposition.
However, it is difficult to align prize money according to the relative strength of the men an women’s games. They go through phases and it is impractical to amend pay structures each year. The difference was small enough to be symbolic only (Federer won £655,000 as winner in 2006, Amelie Mauresmo £625,000). It was enough to suggest inequality but insufficient to reflect a strong belief that men deserved more.
Prize funds have been growing each year and it is somehow crass of male players to look at the earnings of others rather than themselves. £655,000 for the winner in 2006 was increased to £700,000 last year and to £750,000 in 2008. This increase is reflected across all rounds and it seems that those who complain (of whom Federer is not one) should be happy with what they have got.
Tennis players earn most of their income through sponsorship,endorsements and other sources unconnected directly to tournament performance, which leads some to suggest that women players are now earning more through off-court activities. Whilst this might be true, it is not the place of grand slam committees to redress the balance through their prize structures.
The length of match factor is also irrelevant. Critics state that women should play five sets to earn the right to equal pay, but this would result in a decrease in standards which will not help the development of the game. Matching prize money with time spent in competition is a tricky area. Should female athletes who take longer to complete the same distance or event as men earn more? Probably not.
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