As far as British tennis player Tim Henman was concerned, the debate was ridiculous. Wimbledon always has awarded more prize money to its male competitors than to its female players, and he didn't see any reason for that to change.
"I think the women should first worry about getting their own tournaments at a bigger and better level and then worry about the Grand Slams," he said during a post-match news conference this week. "If they say they want more [money] in the Grand Slams, I think that's probably getting a bit greedy."
Henman knew he was inviting controversy, but he was still surprised the next morning when he woke up and saw his face plastered across the London tabloids. "Henman Accuses Women of Being `Greedy' " read one headline. "No More Money for `Greedy' Women" read another. After his next match, he met the media with a sheepish grin. When one reporter jokingly asked him if he thought women should be allowed to vote, he laughed.
"I'm not getting myself into any more trouble," he said. "No comment."
Henman has advanced through the tournament without further incident, but "equal pay" has remained the one divisive topic in this otherwise peaceful fortnight. Of the four Grand Slams, only the U.S. Open offers female players as much prize money as the men, but Wimbledon always has attracted particular controversy because the discrepancy between prize money is the most significant.
The men's champion will receive the equivalent of $728,000; the women's title winner will receive the equivalent of $655,200. This year, Wimbledon increased the amount of money for the women's doubles winners, although that number remains lower than the amount to be awarded to the men's doubles winners.
Overall, the total prize money awarded to women will be about 63 percent of what the men will receive. At the French Open, the women's prize money is about 90 percent of the men's; at the Australian Open the difference is about 6 percent. The U.S. Open prize money has been the same for both sexes since 1974.
About 90 WTA players recently signed a petition asking Wimbledon to change its policies, although talk of a boycott got little support. Several players also have spoken publicly on the issue: Patrick Rafter and Anna Kournikova have supported equal pay while Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario has supported the All England club. Jim Courier supported Henman's comments, saying, "I think it's a ridiculous dispute."
In discussing the prize money discrepancy, All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club Chairman John Curry used an argument similar to Henman's, noting that the prize money at regular WTA Tour events is lower than the prize money at regular ATP Tour events.
"At their own tournaments, the women pay themselves on average less than 50 percent of the men's prize money," Curry said, noting that this disparity exists even though the men and the women play a best-of-three sets format during regular tour events. "At Wimbledon we require the men to play best-of-five sets and the women to play the best-of-three sets. This makes it physically tougher for the men over the two weeks. The level of prize money we offer actually means that the women earn approximately 120-150 percent more per point versus the men.
"The women players have every right to request increases in prize money, but it would seem more reasonable that they achieve this from their own tournaments first before requesting it from Wimbledon."
Curry also pointed out that because more of the top women play in the singles and the doubles competitions, they usually leave Wimbledon with more prize money than the top male players do. But WTA Chairman Bart McGuire finds these arguments absurd, noting that if anyone -- male or female -- decides to play in more than one draw of the tournament, they deserve to be paid more. He also disputed the notion that Wimbledon should pay its players based on what they get on their regular tours.
"Basically women have gotten paid less than men in most occupations for centuries," McGuire said. "Looking at that, I don't think it's something people should be proud of or something that they should use as a role model.
"The Grand Slams are leaders in so many respects in tennis, they should be leaders in terms of equal prize money. Besides, the Grand Slams are a different product than single-gender events. What you're selling is that you have both together, so you should pay both equally."
Former players have expressed their opinions on the purse discrepancy issue, and John McEnroe and Billie Jean King have written newspaper columns on the subject. Surprisingly King, a longtime advocate of advancing women's place in the sport, and McEnroe, who once stated that women should not provide television commentary on men's matches, were of the same opinion.
"You wanna know my opinion? If I were advising the guys, I'd tell them to take the equal prize money -- while they still have a chance," McEnroe wrote in the New York Times. "Let's face it, the old arguments that sustained the inequality in paychecks throughout the years, while in many instances still true, just don't cut it.
"Yes, the men's game still possesses more depth than the women's game. Does the fan care? The men play best of five sets at Grand Slam events, while the women play best of three. So what? The fact is that fans buy tickets to watch great tennis played by great playing personalities competing for titles in great events. And the women are selling the tickets."
At the Grand Slams last year, women's finals got better ratings than the men's finals on U.S. television. The same was true of the Australian Open finals this year, although this year's French Open final, which featured Andre Agassi, outrated the women's final featuring Martina Hingis and Steffi Graf.
King, a commentator for HBO at Wimbledon, can recite the relevant ratings and monetary statistics on this issue by heart. But while she is willing to help fight the equal pay battle, she doesn't see why the All England club is fighting so hard.
"The difference is 1.7 percent of the reported [$52.8 million] in net profit generated by Wimbledon last year," King said. "The money Wimbledon is saving is not worth the ill will and distraction. Let's treat the women as equals so we can go back to enjoying the game and the championships."
When: Through July 4.
Where: All England club, Wimbledon.
Defending champions: Pete Sampras, Jana Novotna.
Top seeds: Sampras, Martina Hingis.
Today's TV: 10 a.m., WRC-4, WBAL-11; noon, HBO.
Yesterday's results: No
Today's featured matches: Men -- Sampras (1), United States, vs. Daniel Nestor, Canada; Boris Becker, Germany, vs. Patrick Rafter (2), Australia; Wayne Arthurs, Australia, vs. Andre Agassi (4), United States; Jim Courier, United States, vs. Tim Henman (6), Britain; Todd Martin (8), United States, vs. Goran Ivanisevic (10), Croatia; Greg Rusedski (9), Britain, vs. Mark Philippoussis (7), Australia. Women -- Kim Clijsters, Belgium, vs. Steffi Graf (2), Germany; Lindsay Davenport (3), United States, vs. Barbara Schett (14), Austria; Nathalie Dechy, France, vs. Novotna (5), Czech Republic; Venus Williams (6), United States, vs. Anna Kournikova (17), Russia; Nathalie Tauziat (8), France, vs. Dominique Van Roost (15), Belgium; Jelena Dokic, Australia, vs. Mary Pierce (9), France.