Column: It's time for tennis to close the gender gap

In this March 20, 2016, file photo, tournament director Raymond Moore gestures while speaking at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament in Indian Wells, Calif. Moore, the tournament director of the BNP Paribas Open who said women's pro tennis players "ride on the coattails of the men," has resigned. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

As far as international sports go, tennis has a strong history of notable female athletes. From Billy Jean King to Serena and Venus Williams, most people – tennis fans or not – are familiar with at least a few females in the sport.

But even tennis is not free of its gender equality controversies; in fact, according to an ESPN report, Indian Wells Open CEO Raymond Moore accused the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) of riding on the coattails of men last Sunday, saying, “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.”

These remarks, apart from grossly devaluing the role that women have played in tennis and setting the back the path to gender equality in sports in general, have renewed the outrageous claim that female tennis champions should not receive equal monetary rewards as their male counterparts.

Moore’s comments have no place in any sport, but tennis especially has had a long and arduous battle for gender equality. Tennis star Bobby Riggs used to taunt his female counterparts and make a show of defeating them until the 1973 Battle of the Sexes match, where Billie Jean King defeated him 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. Today, sisters Serena and Venus Williams have brought an unprecedented level of fame to the WTA, with Serena winning more Grand Slam tournaments than her male counterparts.

Stacey Allaster, head of the WTA, even stated in a Washington Post interview that Venus’s advocacy helped secure equal pay at Wimbledon in 2007.

Yet, there still exists a group of strong voices that believe men should be paid more for their matches. Some believe that since men are required to play for the best of five sets instead of the best of three sets that women play in large tournaments, they put in more work and preparation and should therefore receive higher pay. Others believe that pay should be based off spectator interest.

According to an article from The Atlantic, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) No. 1 Novak Djokovic said that the men should fight for greater pay because they bring in more spectators. However, Djokovic’s claim is at the moment groundless; according to an ESPN report, Serena Williams’s 2015 U.S. Open final match sold out before the men’s final for the first time in history.

Even if men do bring in more spectators on average to tennis matches, or play five sets instead of three, tennis, like all sports, is still a performance. The payment is for the practice and preparation, not for a few hours on the court. Billie Jean King said it best: “It’s not about the money, it’s about the message.”

The pay gap is just a physical manifestation of greater inequalities in the sport, and as long as that pay gap exists, it sends the message that this is perfectly acceptable. The primary step, therefore, is maintaining equal pay for men and women. If that means having women play five sets or men play three, then so be it. But waiting around for spectators to continually flock to women’s matches is not the solution. As long as the WTA and ATP present male and female tennis players as unequal, then spectators will make their judgments just as disproportionately.

Tennis has been an excellent model of gender equality for years, with equal pay at large tournaments, and male and female athletes that bring equal popularity to the sport. It still can be a model in the future. But first, the sexist mindsets like that of Raymond Moore must not hold positions of influence.

To ask women to get on their knees and thank the male greats that came before them is to ask them to thank those who boxed them out of the sport and withheld opportunities from them. The reality is that both men and women have shaped tennis into the sport that it is today, and neither need thank the other for their contributions toward its progress.

For every Rafael Nadal, there is a Serena Williams, and for every Novak Djokovic, a Maria Sharapova. Stealing that credibility from female athletes only does the sport of tennis and the entire athletic community a great disservice.


Alex Oliveira is a staff columnist to the Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at alexandra.oliveira@uconn.edu.