Solutions on how to close the gap on pay disparities among male and female employees have varied, but the debate has reached a fevered pitch during 2016 presidential election primaries. Nearly each presidential hopeful has weighed in on the issue of equal pay for women, and the discussion is sure to continue as the general election nears.
While the focus of the national debate has typically been on how to close the gender gap, the discussion in tennis that resurfaced this month was about why equal pay among the male and female players is unfair — a discussion that was brought back in the forefront after controversial comments by Indian Wells chief executive Raymond Moore and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic.
Players on the Association of Tennis Professionals “should fight for more because the stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men’s tennis matches,” Djokovic said earlier this week before clarifying Thursday that he was referring to the “distribution of the wealth and growth of the sport” regardless of gender.
A few of his peers on the men’s tour have been less conciliatory. Janko Tipsarevic, who like Djokovic is from Serbia, said in 2012 that “equal pay is ridiculous.” Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky, a vocal critic of equal pay at the Grand Slams, told CNN this week, “I disagree that it should be equal [now]. I believe that maybe in 10 years from now, maybe the women will have 15 superstars which would drive tennis in a completely way and then they would earn more than the men.”
When Wimbledon became the last Grand Slam to award the same prize money for male and female champions in 2007, it was a huge victory for advocates Billie Jean King and Venus Williams, who were instrumental in fighting for equal pay. But over the years, the move toward equality in tennis has occasionally been met with discontent by fans and male players, who believe it is an unfair division of money.
“To have equal prize money in the majors sends a message,” King said Wednesday in a news conference at the Miami Open. “It’s not about the money, it’s about the message. Any time you discount another human being by gender, race, disability, however, we’re not helping ourselves.”
But the critics have been unmoved. They point out that men play best-of-five sets at Grand Slams, women’s matches are best-of-three. It’s been argued that men’s tennis consistently outdraws women’s tennis — a fact that top-ranked Serena Williams’s worldwide popularity undermines. With her bid for a historic Grand Slam on the line last season, the U.S. Open women’s final sold out before the men’s for the first time in tournament history.
“I think there is a lot of women out there who are … very exciting to watch,” Williams said. “I think there are a lot of men who are exciting to watch. I think it definitely goes both ways.”
Moore, the recently-resigned Indian Wells tournament executive, started the controversy earlier this month when he said that players on the Women’s Tennis Association “ride on coattails of the men” and that they “don’t make any decisions and they are lucky.” He added, “If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport.” Moore apologized soon after and resigned from his position at Indian Wells.
Comments like Moore’s and the subsequent reaction rising American pro Nicole Gibbs encountered on Twitter prompted her to speak up, which led to an invitation by King to Wednesday’s news conference.
“Honestly, the motivation to involve myself in the conversation is nothing greater than I’m a woman; I’m on the WTA Tour,” Gibbs said Thursday in a phone interview with The Washington Post. “If I can be someone some people look up to as inspiration for using their voice, then that’s great for me.”
On the subject of women playing best-of-three matches at Grand Slams, the 23-year-old Gibbs, who is ranked a career-high No. 74 in the world, quoted King, a mentor and hero of hers that she met at Wimbledon last year.
“I think Billie Jean King has been on record saying, ‘When you pay an entertainer, you don’t pay them hourly, you pay for performance.’ So that’s one way to look at it,” Gibbs said. “Another way to look at it, you’re not actually paying for the hours on court, you’re paying for all the work we’ve done in preparation. …I would argue the women are putting as much as the men are in preparation for these events.”
As she engaged in her Twitter debate, Gibbs watched as another unfolded – one between Andy Murray and Stakhovsky. Murray, who has said, “there should be equal pay, 100 percent, at all combined events,” took issue with Stakhovsky’s suggestion that a law degree from a less prestigious university cannot expect to make as much as one from an Ivy League school – an argument he seemed to be using to defend his stance against equal pay in tennis.
King lauded players like Murray, who said back in 2013 that women should play best-of-five-sets to justify equal pay, and Stan Wawrinka, for their recent support of equal pay. She also specifically pointed to Gibbs, who sat among reporters at the news conference with King and Chris Evert, as being a voice of the future.
“To hear the men and women weighing in, tennis players just having this dialogue, a discussion is actually progress,” the 72-year-old King said. “So this next generation of men are going to make a huge difference. We need them, but they need us. We need each other. I think if we can just keep that in our minds all the time, then we’re going to win.”