Wimbledon overrule equal pay

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Psst! Want two together for Wimbledon's new No 1 Court? Consult your local clergy. Songs of Praise is to be recorded in the bowl of the stadium on Sunday 1 June and shown by the BBC on the middle Sunday of the championships (29 June). How many women tennis players will be inclined to add their voices remains to be seen.

While not exactly abandoning the female competitors to cardboard city - pounds 373,500 will go to the singles champion - the All England Club has again declined to grant equal prize-money with the men, whose singles champion will receive pounds 415,000.

"It's still the public's view that they prefer the men's matches to the women's," John Curry, the Wimbledon chairman, said yesterday. "We look at it very seriously every year, but, having considered all the facts, we felt we had no good reason to change the way we are.''

The Women's Association had asked for the differential to be narrowed from the quarter-finals onwards. What they got was a 5.7 per cent increase on last year's singles winner's prize. So did the men. The total pot - pounds 6.885m - is 6.5 per cent more than in 1996, when the club made a record profit of pounds 29.1m.

Responding to the announcement, the WTA Tour said it would continue to lobby the All England Club. "There is a worldwide boom in women's tennis, due to increased depth in fields and the rise of our young stars," a WTA Tour statement said. "In each of the last four years the women's final has been the most dramatic of all the matches during the fortnight, while in each of the last six years the women have consistently delivered more seeded players through to the quarter-finals.''

The point that men play over the best of five sets is countered by the women's contention that more rallies can be seen in their best of three set contests. They argue that the increased power afforded by racket technology, which has tended to diminish the men's game as a spectacle on the fast grass courts, has improved the standard of the women's game. Billie Jean King, ever a champion of equality, has even suggested that the men play two out of three sets. "It's boring, five sets. This is the 1990s.''

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the last Wimbledon championships closed to professionals. After beating Britain's Ann Jones in the 1967 final, King returned next year, when tennis first went open, to complete a hat-trick of triumphs. She received pounds 750 in 1968, while Rod Laver won pounds 2,000 for the men's title.

First-round losers in the women's singles at this year's Wimbledon qualifying tournament at Roehampton will each receive pounds 766 (pounds 988 for the men). The All England Club is also introducing a per diem of pounds 68 for the qualifying competition, half the daily allowance to be paid to players in the main draw.

The first open Wimbledon offered a total of pounds 26,150 in prize money. This year, pounds 48,500 will be spent on the 35 and over women's invitation doubles.