Column: The equal pay farce

By Chandrasekar Ramesh

Professional French tennis player Gilles Simon was torn apart on the blogosphere last summer after commenting that female players should not receive equal pay, prompting the resurgence of equal pay advocates. While I will not defend Simon’s exact phrasing, he is correct — with the current rules, female tennis players do not deserve as much pay as male players. Advocates claim that women’s tennis has the same viewership and training regimen, and that the greater potential for upsets in women’s tennis makes it more interesting and compels equal pay for equal work. This last argument is the least persuasive, so let me begin here.

The principle of equal work for equal pay touted by advocates actually disproves their point. Men play best of five sets while women play best of three. Men are on the court for longer and play more games, for less prize money per game. If anything, this principle would mandate more pay for men, not less. Take the 2010 French Open singles matches, for example. There were 127 men’s matches, which took 18,797 minutes, while the 127 women’s matches took 11,730 minutes, meaning women were on the court less than 39 percent of the time. The women played 2,543 games while the men played 4,310. The women averaged 967.4 euros per game, while men averaged 583.49 euros per game. Never mind equal prize money — with men averaging 40 percent less winnings per game, “equal pay for equal work” seems to tell us to increase the gap.

Viewership data, on the other hand, is much more difficult to find. Based on the Nielson TV ratings data, viewership for each of the four major tournaments has been on a long-term decline since 1978, with a handful of exceptions. For example, the U.S. Open rose in viewership whenever a man from the United States was in the semifinals or higher. However, it is difficult to know in the aggregate which type of tennis is watched more. While some claim that men’s tennis is boring because men simply hold serve, others argue that they play better tennis, hit harder and serve faster.

In either case, it is a dangerous precedent to base prize money on contributions to viewership. At this past Wimbledon Championship, the early upset match of Rafael Nadal losing to Lukas Rosol had a far higher viewership than most other matches up to the quarterfinals. Does that mean that Rosol should have earned far more despite losing the very next match? When Serena Williams says, “I started playing tennis at two years old…I worked just as hard as he did,” the only real response should be “So what?” Prize money is not meant to reward the difficulty of training. It is a singular, defining recognition of excellence.

Some pragmatic advocates have suggested making all matches just best of three sets. Even if this were adopted, there is a more fundamental question underlying this entire discussion: do men play better tennis than women? Men serve faster, have a greater endurance, run faster and hit harder, so this raises the question of what we define to be “better tennis.” Some have interpreted this question as an open challenge, and this has given birth to well-known male-female matches: Will Tilden beat Suzanne Lenglen in the early 1920s to love in some sets, Bobby Riggs defeated Margaret Court in 1973 6-2, 6-1 and Jimmy Conners defeated Martina Navatilova in 1992 7-5, 6-2. Most infamously, during the 1998 Australian Open, Venus and Serena Williams claimed they could defeat any man outside the world’s top 200; Karsten Braasch, ranked 203, accepted. Braasch played a round of golf, drank several beers and smoked the morning of the match before defeating Serena 6-1 and Venus 6-2.

Bobby Riggs’ straight set loss in 1973 to women’s number one Billy Jean King is the usual rebuttal, but a young champion beating a 55 year-old man well past his prime is not an asset to the feminist cause. There is quite possibly a very good explanation for why women deserve equal pay in professional tennis, but that reason must be accompanied by a redefining of what constitutes “excellence in tennis” and why men’s triumphs do not disprove women’s accomplishments. Until then, I find it difficult to accept equal prize money in tennis majors.

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