To the Editor:
In 2006, tennis icon Venus Williams wrote an essay in The Times, in which she publicly and bravely accused Wimbledon of “being on the wrong side of history” due to the tournament’s refusal to pay men and women equally. Branding herself as a “second-class champion,” Venus sent shockwaves around the world, especially given that she had won the singles title three times in five years, and had competed in the singles final every year from 2000-2005, with the sole exception of 2004. Wimbledon eventually caved into growing public and private pressure, and the French Open famously followed suit; new hope for equality was born.
Unfortunately, Grant Avalon’s recent op-ed seems to have forgotten – and in fact intentionally ignores – the impact that women’s tennis has had on the game and in the sporting theater as a whole. The 2001 U.S. Open Final between Venus and her sister Serena was actually one of the highest-rated tennis events this century (based on TV viewers), and surpassed the amount of viewers who watched the men’s final that year. Furthermore, the 2015 U.S. Open Women’s Singles Final sold out before the men’s, primarily because of the enormous public interest in seeing Serena try to complete the calendar-year Grand Slam, one of professional tennis’s most daunting feats. In fact, the last person to achieve the calendar-year Grand Slam was Steffi Graf, a feat she achieved in 1988; no man has completed the calendar-year Grand Slam since Rod Laver, almost 50 years ago. Serena ultimately lost in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, but she inspired the world with her resilience and skill that have deservedly crowned her as one of the world’s best athletes, male or female.
Avalon’s article in The Daily also claimed that male tennis players are more marketable than their female counterparts. This argument is specious. Forbes has frequently had Maria Sharapova ranked higher than contemporary male athletes, including top five players like Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka, in terms of marketability and salary. Recently, Serena and Venus were respectively ranked fourth and sixth in Forbes’ list of the top 10 most marketable athletes of 2016, 20 years since they first debuted on the tennis scene. As a direct response to Avalon’s claim that, “Unbiased indicators indicate that men’s tennis is simply a more popular and marketable game,” I would note that there is not a single male tennis player on this list. Major corporations – including Gatorade, Nike and IBM – and the tennis majors themselves – the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open – have not only been ethically correct in endorsing the equality and strength of women’s tennis, but have also been objectively smart in endorsing women and awarding equal prize money, respectively.
Furthermore, Avalon’s point that, “it is simply unconscionable to justify the same level of pay for a different level of work” is cruelly ironic. Isn’t it equally “unconscionable” to justify different levels of pay for the same amount of work, as evidenced by the majority of other tour events in which both genders play best-of-three-set matches? For example, the Italian Open, located in Rome, is an important event for both the ATP and WTA, and is held a short two weeks before the French Open. In Rome, both men and women play in the best-of-three-sets format, and this is the standard for all annual tennis tournaments with the exception of the Grand Slams and the international Davis Cup competition. However, given the similarities between the men’s and women’s tournaments, the disparity in prize money is perplexing; the men’s singles champion earns almost twice as much as the women’s singles champion. Clearly, equality is not yet fully integrated into the tennis world. Thus, it is even more important for spectators and commentators to praise the Grand Slams for their commitment to equal prize money, rather than discourage it.
Avalon speaks disrespectfully and incorrectly about Serena Williams. He claims that, “If [Serena] were paid based on her talent level instead of her gender, she wouldn’t make a livable wage,” a statement which I, among others, perceive as an irredeemably sexist and blatantly false statement about one of sport’s greatest icons. I am more than confident that Serena’s talent level would allow her to not only “make a livable wage,” but also allow her to live very comfortably.
Female tennis champions like Venus, Serena and Billie Jean King have worked too hard and too long to see their efforts be negated by men trying to discount their accomplishments. Equal prize money is not “an experiment in political correctness,” but rather a triumph of ethics. Instead of trying to tear down a sport that has actively attempted to counteract gender inequality, it is incumbent on us to continue to support women’s tennis, as well as all those who advocate for equal prize money and equal pay.
– Ben Schwartz ’18
Contact Ben Schwartz at ben4 ‘at’ stanford.edu.