Tennis: King backs women's claim for prize-money equality

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THE LEGENDARY Billie Jean King said yesterday it was high time the world's most famous tennis tournament gave women equal pay. Otherwise "The Spice Girls of Tennis" - as Martina Hingis calls them - may stage a boycott of Wimbledon.

King, who won a record 20 Wimbledon titles, said: "The money that Wimbledon is saving - less than two percent of its profits - is not worth the resulting ill-will and distraction."

She argued that television ratings for the exciting new generation of glamorous teenage stars consistently favoured the women.

King, the founder of the Women's Tennis Association and a key voice in the sport, also insisted that it was entertainment value and not length of performance that counted. "Runners who compete at 100m and 1500m get paid more than those who run 10km and most people would rather watch a great two-hour movie than a four-hour movie of any quality."

Wimbledon organisers point out that the majority of fans coming to the tournament say they prefer to watch men play. They also argue that women end up winning more prize-money than men because they play shorter singles matches and therefore are able to play more women's doubles and mixed doubles. King retorted: "Wimbledon should be encouraging the top women to continue doing this rather than penalising them by paying them less. It is a sad fact that Wimbledon remains a distant fourth among the four Grand Slams in the percentage of prize-money it pays to women."

The men's champion wins pounds 455,000, while the women's champion gets pounds 409,500. At the Australian Open, the women receive 94 percent of the men's prize- money and at the French it is 90 percent. Only the US Open gives both sexes equal prize money.

The issue has sparked controversy at Wimbledon where the British No 1 Tim Henman grabbed headlines for all the wrong reasons when he accused women players of being greedy. Now he has gone very silent on the subject, saying: "That's it. I've learnt my lesson and no more talking about equal prize-money."

The reigning women's champion, Jana Novotna said: "It is nothing to do with being greedy or that we are complaining about not being paid well enough."

King said that the 18-strong Wimbledon management committee had just one woman on it, and argued that now was the time to make the right decision for business reasons alone. "Treating women as less valuable than men generates ill-will that is disproportionate to the amount of money you are saving," she said.