Show Me the Money! Venus Williams and the Fight for Pay Equity in Tennis

The first tennis match I remember watching was the 1998 Miami final between teenagers Venus Williams and Anna Kournikova. Immediately, I was enthralled with Venus. Everything about her was different than anything I ever thought tennis could or would be. She wore hundreds of multi-colored beads in her hair and ushered in Big-Babe Tennis as Mary Carillo soon dubbed it. 15 years later, I still am enamored by Venus, only now it has less to do with her brand of tennis and more to do with how she carries herself off the court. While she has won 7 Grand Slam singles titles, 13 doubles titles, 2 mixed doubles titles, and 4 Olympic Gold medals, her contributions off the court perhaps outweigh if not entirely eclipse her performance on it. She stands alongside Billie Jean King as one of tennis’ most influential ambassadors.

Perhaps unaware to the general public, Venus’ efforts toward gender equality and equal pay have been one of the most important developments in the history of modern professional tennis. For years, Venus, alongside Billie Jean King and others, fought for equality and social change within a sport that was undeniably dated in its views towards women and men. Ultimately, in 2007, Wimbledon caught up with modern times and agreed to pay both its male and female champions equal prize money. The US Open and Australian Open had been doing this for years and popular opinion in and around the sport were urging the All England Club not to be on the wrong side of history. Even Tony Blair and UNESCO had been advocating for the change.

In truth, the gap between prize money had been more symbolic than anything. In 2006, Roger Federer received $1.17 million whereas Amelie Mauresmo received $1.117 million, or 95% of what Federer was paid. The Club’s supporters claimed that women played less than men did and that the men’s stars drew higher television ratings and were generally more marketable. Even though the men technically play “longer” matches, the difference in prize money was so little that it did not truly reflect the difference in games or sets played. This was about the club refusing to see women as equals to men.

In 2006, Venus provided the definitive move and push towards equal prize money. Williams said: “You should definitely see the merit in people getting paid or being treated equal as people, not on sex.” In a letter she wrote that was published in The Times, Venus argued:

I feel so strongly that Wimbledon’s stance devalues the principle of meritocracy and diminishes the years of hard work that women on the tour have put into becoming professional tennis players.

I believe that athletes – especially female athletes in the world’s leading sport for women – should serve as role models. The message I like to convey to women and girls across the globe is that there is no glass ceiling. My fear is that Wimbledon is loudly and clearly sending the opposite message.

Wimbledon has argued that women’s tennis is worth less for a variety of reasons; it says, for example, that because men play a best of five sets game they work harder for their prize money.

This argument just doesn’t make sense; first of all, women players would be happy to play five sets matches in grand slam tournaments.

Secondly, tennis is unique in the world of professional sports. No other sport has men and women competing for a grand slam championship on the same stage, at the same time. So in the eyes of the general public the men’s and women’s games have the same value.

Third, we enjoy huge and equal celebrity and are paid for the value we deliver to broadcasters and spectators, not the amount of time we spend on the stage. And, for the record, the ladies’ final at Wimbledon in 2005 lasted 45 minutes longer than the men’s.

Wimbledon has justified treating women as second class because we do more for the tournament. The argument goes that the top women – who are more likely also to play doubles matches than their male peers – earn more than the top men if you count singles, doubles and mixed doubles prize money. So the more we support the tournament, the more unequally we should be treated! But doubles and mixed doubles are separate events from the singles competition. Is Wimbledon suggesting that, if the top women withdrew from the doubles events, that then we would deserve equal prize money in singles? And how then does the All England Club explain why the pot of women’s doubles prize money is nearly £130,000 smaller than the men’s doubles prize money?

I intend to keep doing everything I can until Billie Jean’s original dream of equality is made real. It’s a shame that the name of the greatest tournament in tennis, an event that should be a positive symbol for the sport, is tarnished.

Poetically, Venus was the first beneficiary of Wimbledon’s equal prize money. In 2007, she received $1.41 million, the exact same amount as Roger Federer.

Why is this important to me? Venus’ fight for equal prize money in tennis was one of the first issues of gender equality that I closely followed as an adult. For years, I questioned the lack of equality within the sport. To be honest, I didn’t understand it. I had always valued women’s tennis and, for the better part of my “tennis life,” I was more interested in the women’s game than the men’s. Equality seemed a necessity to me.

Still, this issue does not appear to be over. Several male players have voiced their discontent over equal prize money, most notably Gilles Simon. While Simon mentioned the debate over the length of matches, he also focused on male tennis players’ perceived celebrity status. According to Simon, more fans watch men’s tennis because it is more “interesting.” By this logic, Simon should be paid less that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer because he isn’t as well known. There are many faulty areas of Simon’s comments, but this one was my favorite. Thankfully, the majority of those in and around professional tennis believe in equal prize money and gender equality within the sport.

Tonight, ESPN films will present a new documentary, as part of its Title IX series, based on Venus’ fight for equal prize money. Venus Vs. highlights the different hurdles and obstacles that Williams had to face throughout her career while focusing on her relationship with Wimbledon and its disproportion of prize money payouts. Director Ava DuVernay rightfully paints Venus as the feminist activist that she is, making gender equality at Wimbledon stand out as a constant factor in her motivation to succeed in the sport. As she became one of the greatest Wimbledon champions of all time, she found herself in a powerful position to serve as an ambassador to the game in which she could influence the future of women’s tennis.

On the 40th anniversary of Title IX, I am thrilled that ESPN is devoting much-needed prime time television to Venus’ fight as well as the other women involved in the series (The teaser trailer looks great!). Hopefully, this does not serve as simply a reminder of our nation’s recent history, but serves as a call-to-action in which gender equality remains a necessity in and out of the sports realm.

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