After successive years of dominance in the modern men’s game, it is understandable that tennis fans are relishing the rare sight of a Novak Djokovic mis-hit. The Serbian world No 1’s cautious suggestion that “maybe [male players] should be awarded more” than their female counterparts showed an atypical lack of judgement – especially for an athlete whose past record off the court has been a model of respectful inoffensiveness.
Djokovic was, it should be noted, quick to qualify his remarks, praising the progress made in pay equality in recent years and congratulating the Women’s Tennis Association on having “fought for what they deserve”. Moreover, the tennis ace has been unfairly made a fall guy for Raymond Moore, the chief executive of Indian Wells – the tournament which has come to be known as the “fifth Grand Slam”, and which Djokovic won for a record fifth time this weekend. The initial remarks made by Mr Moore, the ones to which Djokovic was asked to respond, could scarcely have been phrased with more clumsiness. “If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born,” he said, “because they have carried this sport.” Whether Moore’s innuendo was intended remains moot; that his comments were unacceptable is not a matter for discussion.
Yet, in adding his voice to the debate, it was Djokovic’s reasoning for a pay gap that proved fatally garrulous: namely that statistics show men’s matches gather more spectators, which tournament winnings should reflect. This is a supply and demand argument that risks intensifying the already indentured relationship of sport to money. On this point, Djokovic would do well to heed his own advice made to rising tennis stars earlier this year: “Leave this sport with dignity. Tennis is greater than all of us.”
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