After decades of defending their prerogative to reward men with a bigger paycheck than women, Wimbledon officials reversed course and announced yesterday they will award equal prize money beginning with this year's tournament.
The policy change, which had been advocated by the Women's Tennis Association, a host of former champions and even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, brings the sport's most tradition-laden tournament in line with the other majors that comprise the Grand Slam.
The U.S. and Australian opens have offered equal prize money to men and women through all rounds for years, and the French Open pays its respective champions equal prize money. On the heels of yesterday's announcement by officials of the All England club, the owner and host of Wimbledon, French Open officials said they would follow suit and equalize prize money during every round of their clay-court event.
The announcement was met with immediate accolades by tennis champions, male and female alike.
Three-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams, who had written a powerfully worded commentary against Wimbledon's pay inequity in the Times of London on the eve of last year's tournament, was quoted by the BBC as saying: "The greatest tennis tournament in the world has reached an even greater height today. I applaud today's decision by Wimbledon, which recognizes the value of women's tennis. The 2007 championship will have even greater meaning and significance to me and my fellow players."
Williams was joined in hailing the move by fellow American Billie Jean King, who won a record 20 Wimbledon titles; 2004 champion Maria Sharapova; defending champion Amelie Mauresmo and three-time men's champion John McEnroe.
Bowing to public pressure, Wimbledon officials had narrowed the pay gap in recent years. Last year's men's champion, Roger Federer, earned $1.170 million for his victory, while Mauresmo earned $1.117 million for hers.
Wimbledon officials defended the disparity as recently as last summer, arguing that the job that men's and women's players did on the storied grass courts wasn't the same, given that men played best-of-five matches and women played best-of-three. Further, they argued that women stood to make more money at Wimbledon because so many opted to play doubles, in addition to singles, while the rigor of the men's format made it almost impossible for men to do the same.
Advocates for equal pay have long attacked such arguments on both literal and symbolic grounds. The fact that women play best-of-three matches at Wimbledon is the choice of tournament officials, King has long pointed out, not that of female players. Williams, in her commentary for the Times, argued that the pay inequity sent "a message to women across the world that we are inferior."
Apparently both messages finally resonated this year, with the Wimbledon committee agreeing unanimously on Wednesday to eliminate the pay differential, according to the Associated Press.
"Tennis is one of the few sports in which women and men compete in the same event at the same time," Tim Phillips, chairman of the All England club, said at a news conference. "We believe our decision to offer equal prize money provides a boost for the game as a whole and recognizes the enormous contribution that women players make to the game and to Wimbledon. In short, good for tennis, good for women players and good for Wimbledon."