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.
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.
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.