Wimbledon 2015: Billie Jean King’s clarion call for equality rings louder than ever

The legendary women’s champion continues to lead the fight for parity between the sexes on the pro circuit

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The Independent Online

They're either proud suffragettes or insufferable prima donnas, these female tennis players. The views are becoming increasingly entrenched. On one hand, they are castigated for barely grazing the courts with their paltry three setters, deafening their audiences with operatic screeching and then having the temerity to pocket equal prize money while complaining they're not on the show courts enough. Both the men's and women’s Wimbledon champions will take home £1.9m this year, after the rule of equality was established at The Championships in 2007.

On the other hand, the All England Club has shoved even a multiple champion like Venus Williams into tufted backwaters, and men’s matches on Courts One and Centre outnumbered the women in the first week by 41 to 28. Caroline Wozniacki, former world No 1, complained, as she lost on Court Two: “I think a lot of us women feel like we deserve to play on the big courts in front of a big crowd as well.”

The crush of sour grapes may have influenced her chagrin, but women are, and always have been, an integral part of the show. So she has a point. One best made by the most influential sporting suffragette of them all, Billie Jean King. The 39 Grand Slam title-holder has been besieging the holders of purse strings and antediluvian sexist attitudes since the 1970s when she campaigned for equal prize money. And got it.


Ever since, the argument has raged that while men play best of five sets and women three, why should they get equal pay for less work? Here’s your answer. “It’s not about work when it comes to the entertainment business. It’s all about eyeballs,” said King. “We had more eyeballs on the Women’s World Cup in the States than for the men’s a year earlier.”

She was right. Over 54 million eyeballs in the US watched USA v Japan in the Women’s World Cup final,  exceeding the figure for the men’s version by 20m. But that won’t be the case when the BBC’s viewing figures for Wimbledon are announced.

There have been exceptions – notably when Heather Watson took on Serena Williams – but the men’s game is currently of such a supremely high order that you can expect the population of Britain’s sofas to be greater today for the men’s final than for Williams v Muguruza yesterday.

Caroline Wozniacki wants to see more female matches on the bigger show courts

Wimbledon could try snatching money off the women’s champion to compensate but maybe that’s a trifle ungallant. Instead, they might remember when Jim Courier was being deeply uncharismatic, mercifully offset by the compelling spectacles involving Steffi Graf, Gabriela Sabatini, Jana Novotna. Few rivalries have ever matched Navratilova-Evert. Even now, in the US, Serena Williams pulls the biggest audiences on the Tennis Channel.

In other words, ascendancies change and the maintenance of equal prize money is too important a principle to chop. “And I think the boys should play best of three as well,” added King. “Five-setters are too hard on them. It’s just ridiculous how hard it is on their bodies. Most of them quit when they’re 30, like Pete Sampras. And I hate it because just when I feel I’m getting to know them they quit.”

Another suggestion is that both men and women should play three sets until the Grand Slam quarter-final stage, when both sexes would revert to five sets. “If it’s an  argument about five sets, we can do that,” said King. “We have more body fat than men. We can last longer.” Thing is though, what would you lose in the process? Novak Djokovic for one, who would have exited in the fourth round this Wimbledon against Kevin Anderson. The problem, as with all sport so entwined in tradition, will be inducing a change. It was bad enough getting women out of corsets and men out of long trousers on courts a century ago. The theatrical five-setter is woven in the very fabric of Wimbledon and its fellow Slams. Every generation can recall some ridiculous endurance test like Gonzales-Pasarell 1969, Isner-Mahut 2010, that three-day marathon, or Djokovic-Nadal 2012 in Australia, a six-hour war of attrition that left both men on the verge of collapse. “There goes another career,” thought King as she watched the match.

“Athletes do not like change,” said King. “They’re useless at it.”

But Serena Williams is not so risk-adverse and weighed in, politely, to the argument on show courts. “We’re still fighting on that. We’ve made some progress. I don’t think it’s limited to Wimbledon. We have this problem at a lot of tournaments.”

There will be much clucking in the shires, as the campaigning women players are seen as aggressively demanding. Needs must, reckons King. “Women have to speak up because when they don’t nobody cares. We keep thinking somebody’s going to notice and they’re not. As former President Carter said, ‘The average man... accepts his position of privilege’. They don’t want to give up their power. So we must do it ourselves. It’s important for girls to have the same privileges as men. Otherwise it’s human capital we’re wasting.”

It’s the 21st century. Women have stopped being dainty and fainting at the drop of a cambric lace hanky. This debate about equal prize money, equal billing, is about more than counting sets. It’s about sending the message that at Wimbledon, and beyond, women deserve equal opportunities.

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