Equal work for equal pay?
Serena Williams' U.S. Open final win attracted a higher TV audience than the men's showpiece match. (Getty Images)
September 30th, 2013
04:16 PM ET

Equal work for equal pay?

Usually the practice of equal work predates the debate for equal pay. In tennis, the practice of equal pay pre-dated the debate for equal work.

In the 40 years since Billie-Jean King’s historic victory over Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes,” which lit the fuse for the global expansion of women’s tennis, the game has become the biggest women’s sport on the planet, with the stars of the game known on a first name basis the world over.

Eventually, the financial rewards slowly followed suit, culminating in 2007 when Wimbledon become the last of the four grand slam events to award equal prize money to both the men and women.

While this would seem like a non-controversial sign of gender equality and progress, opposition to equal prize money at the grand slams is not isolated to the misogynistic fringe of the tennis community. Their argument is simple; men play best-of-five sets whereas the women just best-of-three.

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Back in 2009, former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt weighed in on the subject, saying, "The training you have to do to last five sets, especially seven best of five-set matches, it's a lot more than three-set matches. There would obviously be question marks [over whether] a lot of them could last."

Former world No. 3 Nikolay Davydenko has also spoken out publicly against this perceived injustice, citing the extra physical demands of playing five sets.

The latest player to make headlines in the debate was Wimbledon champion Andy Murray who recently gave his two cents, stating, “I’m not saying the men work harder than the women, but if you have to train to play five sets, it’s a longer distance.

"It’s like someone training to be a 400-meter runner and someone training to be a 600-meter runner.

"I think either the men go three sets or the women go five sets. I think that’s more what the guys tend to complain about, rather than the equal prize money itself."

The discrepancy between time spent on court was highlighted during last month’s U.S. Open, when Serena Williams walked away with the trophy after just nine hours and 54 minutes on court, as opposed to Rafael Nadal who took 16 hours and 19 minutes to claim the same honor.

Last week, when asked why women do not play best-of-five sets at the grand slams, Women's Tennis Association (WTA) Chairman and chief executive officer Stacey Allaster insisted that her players were, “Ready, willing and able… all you have to do is ask.”

So the men say they want it, and the women say they’re ready for it. So what’s stopping it?

The primary issue is the logistical nightmare of having to schedule 128 first-round matches, each with the potential of going five hours long.

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One proposed suggestion would be to have both the men and women play best-of-three sets for the opening rounds, and best-of-five for the latter. This would allow for the more competitive matches featuring the biggest names to generate the greater drama.

After all, drama is what brings in the money.

Looking retrospectively, this format would not have impacted the epic best-of-five set finals, such as the classic Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe clash in 1980, or the remarkable Roger Federer-Nadal final from 2008. However, early round battles such as the 11+ hour marathon match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut would have been over in under two hours.

These gladiatorial battles underscore the exceptional mental and physical demands of a grand slam, in a way conventional tennis tournaments do not. The excitement of a best-of-five set marathon is a unique and special experience in tennis, and one denied to half the grand slam participants.

Doesn’t Maria Sharapova deserve the opportunity to fight back from two-sets down to clinch victory from the jaws of defeat? Doesn’t the New York crowd deserve to see Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka go the distance over five sets, testing their physical and mental superiority to the max?

As Murray continued to say in his recent interview, playing best-of-five sets “is what makes [grand slams] different.”

Maybe this is the point. During the regular season, both men and women must win five best-of-three set matches over a week in order to take home the title. During a grand slam, the men must win seven best-of-five set matches over two weeks, whereas women need only to win seven best-of-three set matches over the same two weeks.

Added pressure aside, the physical demands for women during a grand slam are actually less than during the regular season.

By allowing women to play best-of-five, you are separating the grand slam’s from the rest of the tour, making them special events, for special athletes.

The one major problem with assessing a tennis player’s fiscal worth by their length of play is assuming that their work day begins with the toss of the coin, and ends with shaking hands.

Playing matches is just a small part of the job of a full-time tennis professional, who train and travel year-round, and have done in most cases since they were too young to see above the airport check-in counter. This is just as true for the women as it is for the men.

Former world No. 6 Gilles Simon has been one of the more outspoken and controversial opponents of equal pay, suggesting that the men deserve more money, because they provide greater entertainment.

In response to this, Sharapova quipped, “I'm sure there are a few more people that watch my matches than his.”

And she’s right. People watch sports to see their favorite players, and for tennis, these fan-favorites are limited to just a few marquee names.

Serena Williams and Sharapova are just as a big draw for the fans as the top men are, and people tune in in the millions to watch them perform.

At this year’s U.S. Open, the women’s final pulled higher domestic television ratings than the men’s final, scoring a 4.9, with the men’s a comparatively low 2.8.

This can be attributed to Serena Williams being American, but that’s largely the point. People watch players they are rooting for, even if it’s only best-of-three sets, or “not as entertaining."

It’s much like when you choose to see a movie. You’re not looking at the showtimes to see which movie is longest. You choose the films featuring your favorite actors, by your favorite directors or producers. And you certainly would not expect to pay more if the movie was longer.

While the offer from the WTA's Allaster is generous, it is perhaps disingenuous. Of all the events her player participate in, the only events for which she is willing to make such an offer are the four events governed by the International Tennis Federation, where she has no jurisdiction over.

If the WTA were serious about playing best-of-five, they would incorporate it more into their own events.

An ideal time to test best-of-five sets for the women’s game would be at the annual end of year WTA Tour Championships. In fact, from 1984 to 1998, this event culminated in a best-of-five final, including an epic five-set thriller between Steffi Graf and Martina Hingis.

If these matches proved successful and popular, we’ll have a real debate on our hands.

But for now, the debate is essentially a none-starter. The media isn’t clamoring for it, the fans aren’t asking for it, and the players - despite what they say - don’t really want it.

If Andy Murray thinks that someone who trains for a 600 meter race deserves more than someone who trains to run 400 meters, maybe he should speak to Usain Bolt, the highest paid track star on the planet, who makes his money training for a race that lasts less than 10 seconds.

soundoff (28 Responses)
  1. mvreddy

    Men can't ask women to play five-set games.Oh my God ! Just they won't ,since how depressed they will be , and almost stop short of crying.seeing their life partner going through labour pains.,giving birth .No, they can't.

    September 30, 2013 at 6:21 pm | Reply
  2. Mike

    Couldn't agree more, even though this article was the first time I'd ever thought about it. I am a huge proponent of women getting pay equal to men, but, at the same time it should be equal pay for equal work. Logically, the women's prize money should be 60% of what the men get.

    September 30, 2013 at 6:53 pm | Reply
  3. Eric

    I think the fact that the women's final of this year's Open being held on a Sunday afternoon, when everyone has the day off, and the men's final on Monday at 5pm, when people are either still at work or commuting, had more to do with the discrepancy in ratings than the American Serena vs. the Spanish Nadal.

    September 30, 2013 at 7:48 pm | Reply
    • CommonSense

      Agreed. I believe the same kind of scheduling happened last year. The author makes some good points but exhibited a slovenly approach in interpreting the viewing statistics.

      September 30, 2013 at 11:29 pm | Reply
    • Jeff

      You beat me to it. It wasn't even on regular TV here until later in the afternoon, locally pre-empted by Dr Phil or some other nonsense, I had to go to the bar and find it on some obscure channel.

      October 1, 2013 at 1:47 am | Reply
  4. Himmat

    Oh my, that final sentence was a jewel! But, then again, Murray didn't talk about pay. He talked about the amount of effort put into training and staying fit. Long distance runners always have to put in more effort than short distance runners cause for them stamina not speed is of utmost importance.

    September 30, 2013 at 9:05 pm | Reply
  5. Hadi

    Pretty well written articles showing both sides of the debate neutrally. The writer has earned my respect.

    September 30, 2013 at 9:25 pm | Reply
  6. not equal

    the time on court is irrelevant. The women do not create as much revenue as the men and so should not get as much. They should get the same percentage of the profit they create. It's unfair to the men.

    Separate men and women into different tournaments and see what happens.

    September 30, 2013 at 10:26 pm | Reply
    • Lepanto

      Whereas I agree with your comment that women sports, tennis in this case, do not generate as much revenue as men's, I would think things even out more or less with sponsorships. And anyhow, separating tournaments would be disastrous. Flame me, but I don't think female tennis can really keep you going for two weeks. WTA ratings, I imagine, are WAY below ATP ones.

      October 1, 2013 at 8:12 am | Reply
  7. joseph ager

    the best

    September 30, 2013 at 10:56 pm | Reply
  8. Lucas

    Womens tennis is the highest paid womens sport in the world for one reason, it has been following the mens since the beggining. No other sport pays the same for both sexes why should tennis? The men draw more attention and generate a lot more money. THe only reason womens tennis makes any money is because we are forced to watch them in the grand slams before we get to see the real action. Womens tennis is a one dimensional boring game.

    September 30, 2013 at 11:01 pm | Reply
  9. German Perspective

    equal play for equal pay

    October 1, 2013 at 1:37 am | Reply
  10. Naz

    I think its wrong to lin the pay with women having to play five sets. I am for both equal pay as well as fove setters for the lasses. As much as the girls deserve equal pay as the men, the crowd too should get equal entertainment irrespective of who plays, men or women. Using the analogy made to athletics, a three setter for women is akin to women having to run a 75 meter race as opposed to the mens 100m; it doesnt happen that way. if its merely a matter of logistics thats preventing the women from playing five sets, all i can say is that its a great shame!

    October 1, 2013 at 4:04 am | Reply
  11. Kindred

    I understand the concern in principle, but the "work" that a woman puts into a best of 3, isn't necessarily disproportionate to a man's work for best of 5. Men are still stronger than women. And just a thought, would anyone put more money the 10,000 steeple chase than the 100m dash? I know I wouldn't.

    October 1, 2013 at 4:11 am | Reply
    • Matt

      First of all, there is no 10,000 meter steeple chase. Secondly, the work done by distance runners is not simply more work than that of sprinters, its different work. Sprinters work strength and distance runners work stamina. Usain Bolt, and all top athletes put in an enormous amount of training work, so the idea that athletics is a useful analogy is a wrong one. The point is that mens tennis requires more conditioning than required for womens tennis. If the women want equal pay, step it up to 5 sets at the slams

      October 1, 2013 at 4:01 pm | Reply
    • dd

      I think you have just made the point for lesser pay due to lesser ability.

      October 1, 2013 at 5:11 pm | Reply
  12. Ahsan

    I also support women players having to play 5 set matches like men. However more importantly we need to make 5 set matches more special. Both men and women should have to play best of 3 set matches up til the 4th round in a grandslam and then it should be best of 5 set matches from quarter final and beyond. This would give even the lower ranked players a chance to compete as they can throw it all in best of 3 set matches in earlier round matches.

    A point I believe should have been raised in the article is Men's tennis these days is far more competitive then women's these days and hence comes the extra hardwork. So there are a lot of issues that should be settled before one can say ok women players deserve to be paid equally as men.

    October 1, 2013 at 4:16 am | Reply
  13. Craig

    Just another example that feminists are not about equality but are just for women. Femininist are just like what they say they want to change.

    October 1, 2013 at 4:52 am | Reply
  14. Behrouz

    I thinks it's a good idea...it makes the match more reasonable ... :)

    October 1, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Reply
  15. Hernando

    I know many reasons why women shouldn`t play te best of five sets. Women`s tennis is so boring guys, even when Serena and Azarenka are playing is boring. Plenty of double faults and none aces, besides women do not have the half of technique men do, which in the end makes the game better and more demanding for players. I COULD GIVE MORE REASONS. Cut down the prize for women and make it fair.

    October 2, 2013 at 11:54 pm | Reply
  16. steve

    just stick three sets for girls, but increase the number in every set, let say 8 instead of 6

    October 6, 2013 at 3:21 am | Reply
  17. Sonya

    The men should play only 3 sets too. If its boring watching women, the same can apply to a men's final. Too many long games at night when everyone just wants to get home and get some sleep, including the players. 3 sets is enough to decide a winner. Prize money should be equal.

    October 31, 2013 at 4:06 am | Reply
  18. Szörf és Kite Iskola ,Aliga Windsurf SE.

    Girls play only 2-3 sets,not 5 ! They earn far enough.

    December 5, 2013 at 9:12 am | Reply
  19. Kev

    I would challenge the commonly held assertion that the womens game is as popular as the mens game and that they bring in as much revenue. If it was, why does the Aus Open charge a higher price per ticket for the mens final than the womens? Put simply, the mens game is a superior product and the women do not deserve equal pay.

    January 21, 2014 at 10:45 pm | Reply
  20. Bolt

    I think you dont have a clue what you are talking about. That usain bolt analogy is idiotic and shows how stupid you are ! Usain bolt gets paid more because he is the fastest human being on the planet plus he is more vulnerable to injuries than endurance runners . . . Are u implying women serve faster ? Or smash harder than men ?? Nah i dont think so. . .

    January 22, 2014 at 5:24 pm | Reply
  21. girardasse

    This makes very little sense. Men tennis players draw bigger audiences than Women tennis players in general and last year's US Open is the exception due to some special circumstances. As for Sharapova drawing bigger audiences than Simon, well, she's a better player relatively as a former no1 and Grand Slam tournament, and indeed she's made much more money than him. Let's compare things comparable, who wants to see a match with Gilles Simon and who prefers to see Samantha Stosur?
    So if women says that they're equal, let's have only one tournament common to women and men. That's equality. Fair.

    January 28, 2014 at 9:05 am | Reply
  22. girardasse

    The best way to have equality is to have men and women competing against each other. One tournament for all, that's no discrimination. Simple. Easy.

    January 28, 2014 at 9:18 am | Reply
    • pkl

      I totally agree. If they really want equality in the true sense of the word, we should have only 1 tour wherein anyone regardless of gender can join then have everyone compete with everyone.

      February 16, 2014 at 10:03 am | Reply

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