Sunrise/sunset of entrance of the RPC building.

Making a racket about the tennis pay gap

29 July 2016. Published by Charlotte Thompson, Associate

In 2015 Novak Djokovic, men’s world number one, received $21.65m in prize money whereas Serena Williams, women’s world number one, won less than half of that amount

Another fortnight of tennis mania has been and gone. Wimbledon's nineteen courts have experienced two weeks of serves, volleys, endless rallies and nail biting matches, not forgetting London's variable weather. It proved a successful year for Britain, with wins in the men’s singles, mixed doubles and wheelchair men’s singles and doubles competitions.

Yet, in tennis, battles are not confined to matches as disparity between men and women’s prize money remains a contentious issue despite tennis being heralded as one of the more egalitarian sports when it comes to winnings.

First serve

Male and female tennis players have been paid the same prize money at Wimbledon for nearly 10 years, along with other grand slam tournaments such as the US Open, which was the first to offer equal prize money in 1973. However, in non-grand slam tournaments women continue to be paid considerably less. In 2015 Novak Djokovic, men’s world number one, received $21.65m in prize money whereas Serena Williams, women’s world number one, won less than half of that amount ($10.58m). The disparity is most stark at the top of the rankings; interestingly, women actually earn more than men at around positions 20 to 30, but the difference swings back in men's favour from around position 30 and below.

For some, the idea of equal pay for male and female tennis players is absurd. This year Raymond Moore, CEO of the Indian Wells tournament in America, claimed that the women's WTA Tour "ride[s] on the coat-tails of men" and that if he were a female player he would "go down every night on [his] knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were born because they have carried this sport."

The rally: what should pay be based upon anyway?

Viewing figures?

The first shot comes from Djokovic who stated that men should be paid more because they have more spectators than women's games. In return, Serena Williams has remarked that the 2015 women's US Open final actually sold out before the men's.

There is often a large difference between television viewing figures for men and women's events: the 2015 Wimbledon men's final on the BBC had 9.2 million viewers whereas the women's had 4.3 million viewers. Interestingly, however, the 2013 and 2014 US Open women's finals were watched by more viewers than the men's, which may be due to Serena Williams’ popularity. Nonetheless, men's tour television deals are worth considerably more than the women’s.

Some obviously question whether these factors, which indicate relative appeal, are actually important when considering the pay gap. Is the current popularity of men’s - as compared to women’s - tennis simply a reflection of the media’s arguable greater interest in men’s sports?

Time on court?

Other arguments supporting unequal pay for men and women in tennis are based upon the fact that women play three sets as opposed to five set matches at Grand Slams and therefore spend less time on court. If one runs this argument, the current position is quite irrational: women are now paid the same as men at Grand Slams where they play fewer sets and they are paid less than men at the other tournaments, where they play the same number of sets. Moreover, linking time on court to pay is perhaps unwise. Should a male tennis player be paid less for finishing a match in three sets rather than five?

Match point

The gender pay gap in tennis is sadly symptomatic of the inconsistencies throughout the entertainment industry, most notably in film, and the discussion raises interesting questions about what should determine pay more generally.

For tennis, looking at it in simple terms, a female winner should have the capacity to earn the same as a male winner at equivalent tournaments: they have each performed to the highest level in their sport. On this basis, differences in prize winnings are unjustifiable. Further, to pay according to whether society currently prefers watching men’s over women’s tennis is perhaps unfair.

For now, at least, clashes will continue to occur on and off the tennis courts.