More balls, please: A rallying cry to Wimbledon's women

Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell is serving notice on SW19. She wants the tournament's sexist £750,000 pay gap closed. By Sophie Goodchild
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The Independent Online

Even in 21st-century Britain, there is still an enclave of tradition where women are "ladies", curtsies are bobbed, and knickers are frilly. Its name is Wimbledon, and it is about to get a well-timed volley straight in the middle of its comfortable, blazered midriff.

Just two weeks before the Championships start, a cabinet minister will fire an accusation of sexual discrimination against the All England Lawn Tennis Club, whose officials organise the event. Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, will this week demand an end to the pay gap that persists between male and female tennis players at the world's oldest tournament. In a strongly worded letter to the chairman of the All England Club, Tim Phillips, Ms Jowell will say that the reputation of British tennis is being "tarnished" because the event is now the only one of the four major championships to give women less prize money than men.

The pot of winnings on offer for world-class players such as Amélie Mauresmo and Maria Sharapova is £4.4m, while the men this year will compete for £5.2m - a difference of £750,000. A source close to Ms Jowell said this gives out the "wrong message": "It's time to move with the times on this issue. This is an anomaly which tarnishes the sport's reputation."

Only two months ago, the Women's Tennis Association issued a statement saying that it was "deeply disappointed. Wimbledon continues to promote inequality in pay... In the 21st century, it is morally indefensible that women competitors in a Grand Slam tournament should be receiving considerably less prize money than their male counterparts."

It is a sentiment supported by three-times Wimbledon champion Venus Williams, who said: "I really hope I am the last woman player in history to be paid unequally."

And Martina Navratilova, a nine-times Wimbledon women's singles champion, accuses the tournament's organisers of resisting progress. In a statement issued to this paper, she said: "I will be an unrelenting critic until they finally wake up and smell the coffee, and give equal prize money to everybody."

The defence of the unequal situation has always been that men play five-set matches, while women play only three. Mr Phillips is on record as saying that women players who reached the quarter-finals last year were paid £1,432 per game at the championships, compared with the £993 per game earned by the last eight men.

John Barrett, the BBC's senior tennis commentator, said it could be argued that it is men who are underpaid. He said: "You have to look at market values, and we know from our queue surveys at Wimbledon that the men's events are very much more popular."

Top male players have in the past defended the pay differential. Seven years ago, Tim Henman rejected calls for parity, as did Australia's 1987 Wimbledon champion Pat Cash. The pro-equality campaigners argue that women's tennis is growing in popularity, with tour revenues increasing by around 60 per cent in the past five years.

Last night, the All England Lawn Tennis Club said it had no comment to make.But Mr Phillips has been quoted as saying he believes the prize money is fair. "It just doesn't seem right to us that the lady players could play in three events and take away significantly more than the men's champion, who battles away through best-of-five matches."

THE MONEY

Australian Open

Equal prize money since 2001.

Champions: £487,750

Runners-up: £243,880

US Open

Equal prize money since 1973.

Champions: £595,200

Runners-up: £297,600

French Open

Equal top prize money from this year. Women players in general still receive less.

Champions: £642,000

Runners-up: men, £321,000; women,£316,600

Wimbledon

Champions: men, £655,000; women, £625,000

Runners-up: men, £327,500; women, £312,500

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