Women's players make less then male counterparts
An unsuspecting Gilles Simon hardly knew what he was unleashing when he suggested earlier this week that the Grand Slams should no longer pay equal prize money for men and women.
"I think that men's tennis is really ahead of women's tennis at this stage," he said in a French radio interview, citing a variety of reasons -- from the fact men play best-of-five series and women a best-of-three format to attendance being lower at some women's events compared to men's.
It was not an expected topic heading into the tournament. The prize money debate looked like it had been largely settled when Wimbledon began to pay the men and women equally in 2007, joining the other three majors in doing so. Two years later, the four biggest combined events on the ATP and WTA tours began offering equal prize money.
And frankly, things are likely to stay the same -- the Grand Slams are unlikely to want the fallout that would result from reversing their position. "There will not be any changes," Wimbledon chairman Philip Brook said earlier this year. "We thought it the right thing to do then and we still think it the right thing to do today."
Still, Simon's words had roughly the same effect as a mini-grenade going off somewhere on the grounds. Once word of his comments got out, there were headlines, condemnations from some of the top women and a brewing controversy.
Two days later, Simon's postmatch news conference was scheduled for the main interview room -- a spot usually reserved for top seeds and plucky Brits, and certainly an unusual spot for a second-round loser. And it wasn't to hear him talk about his match against Xavier Malisse.
"My point of view was just about -- it's a difficult topic -- but it was just about the entertainment," he said, as reporters began to pepper him with questions about his prize money comments. "My point was that I have the feeling that men's tennis is actually more interesting than women's tennis. As in any business or anything, you just have to be paid just about that. It's not because we play five sets and they are playing three."
Unfortunately for Simon, Maria Sharapova had been in the room just a little while before and delivered a pre-emptive strike.
"Despite everything else, I mean, I'm sure there are a few more people that watch my matches than his," she said.
Simon conceded on that point, but responded: "Just check the price of the ticket from the men's final and the women's final."
At Wimbledon, attending the men's final costs 15 pounds (about $25) more than the women's final. Simon said he has the support of most of the men and has been publicly backed by Sergiy Stakhovsky and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. A number of women, including Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters, have criticized his point of view.
So why has the issue come up again, and why now? Simon, who generally has a reputation as thoughtful and articulate, was prepared to defend his position in detail, and finally offered up the real reason.
"I just brought it [up] because someone like No. 80 in the ranking ... cannot pay his coach because it cost a lot of money and he doesn't earn enough money," said the newly elected Players' Council representative.
"As these players are winning most of their [money] in the Slams already, that is why it was important for us, even before, to have a better prize money in the Slams. And actually, if you have to increase the prize money equally for the men's and women, then ..."
... then the men's portion is only half what it would be if they got the whole thing.
For years now, one of the sore points between the ATP players and the Grand Slams has been the discrepancy between what these highly successful tournaments earn and the amount they pay out in prize money -- only about 12 percent of revenues, according to the players. But it also involves a complex tug of interests, because the Grand Slams put their profits into grassroots development rather than the pockets of rich investors.
Recently, the lower ranks have been agitating for more to be paid to early-round losers to reflect the growing cost of playing on the tour and balance out the top-heavy increases tournaments have given to the winners over the years. Earlier this year, the top four men -- Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray -- met with Grand Slam organizers to push the cause of their lower-ranked colleagues, which resulted in Wimbledon increasing first-round prize money by 20 percent this year (compared to a 10 percent increase overall).
Their cries of economic hardship are not misplaced, but ironically the female equivalents they are trying to squeeze out earn even less. The player who finished ranked around No. 80 on the ATP tour last year -- the one who Simon says can't pay his coach -- had earnings of around $380,000 (singles and doubles combined). On the WTA tour, it meant about $240,000 (singles and doubles combined) -- or about two-thirds of the men's equivalent.
While the total amount suggests a comfortable income, tennis players are independent contractors and must pay their travel expenses, any support staff and various deductions out of that amount. At that level, the costs can eat up most or all of the revenue, particularly if a player wants to hire a coach or physical therapist.
Better at the top
The differences at the top are proportionately not as great. So far this year, Nadal has made $4.96 million as the top men's player, while Victoria Azarenka has made $4.63 million, or about 93 percent. The 100th-ranked man, however, has made about $167,000 compared to $112,000 for the 100th-ranked woman, or about 67 percent.
At around No. 20, there is a consistent difference of about $50,000 to $70,000 in earnings between a male player and his female counterpart so far this year. And that difference will only expand after Wimbledon, because most of the year's equal prize money events are over.
Outside the Grand Slams, the distribution of money in the women's draw can be more top-heavy. The combined Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, for example, has equal purses for the men and women, but not the same amounts per round. The women's title winner receives $712,000, which is actually $52,225 more than the men's winner, but a female player who loses in the fourth round takes $39,000, or $4,370 less than a male counterpart.
What's more, while the lowest level of tournaments on the men's tour offers about $460,000 in total prize money, the smallest WTA tournaments offer $220,000.
It means significant uncertainty for those in the outer reaches of the top 120.
"If you don't have help [from a national federation], you don't know if you're going to be able to go to a tournament in half a year, you know?" said Alla Kudryavtseva, who once upset Sharapova at Wimbledon and ranked as high as No. 54 but is currently No.137 in the world. "If any injury happens, you're broke. It's tough."
Even for those a little higher up, it limits the amount of personal and professional support they can take on the road with them. "If you go to the players' lounge, there are a lot more guys that travel with a team [when] ranked No. 80 than girls ranked No. 80 travel with a team," Kudryavtseva added.
"The most you'll see is a girl with her coach and mom or dad, while guys have a coach, physio. And it makes a huge difference. It makes a huge difference to be able to bring three, four people with you at a Slam and just have that little bit of comfort zone, and sit with them, and talk with them."
Strangely, however, the women haven't been heard complaining about their prize money.
"Actually, that's funny, because we just had a meeting here [before Wimbledon] and the topic didn't come up," said Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who is on the WTA Player Council. "I think that should be a priority because, you know, if the men ranked at 100 can make a certain amount, why shouldn't the women? Right now, Time magazine came out with how much Sharapova made, how much Serena [Williams] made -- it's millions; $28 million I think was Sharapova; $16 million, Li Na. And you go to No. 100, and it's not even $100,000, maybe."
Mattek-Sands, a late bloomer, said the needs of the rank-and-file should be recognized. "Trust me, because I was No. 100 for a long time -- I was No. 150," she said. "Because I was playing doubles and I was a little bit higher [in that], I was able to pay bills.
"Right now it is pretty stacked toward the winners. Obviously, they deserve a lot more because they won all their matches. But at the same time, tennis is expensive, and even the people losing in the first rounds, they've still got to play all their travel expenses, coaching, fitness."
Part of the reason women aren't agitating for more is that there isn't that much to go around. "As far as being on the council, our focus has been on a lot of other things, like getting a [title] sponsor," Mattek-Sands said.
Mobile phone company Sony Ericsson gave up its title sponsorship of the tour in 2010 and will be ending its financial commitment at the end of this year. The revolving door at the top of the women's game in recent years means that the number of recognizable names and mainstream appeal of the WTA tour have declined, making it hard to maintain sponsorship revenue.
Top seeds entertain
While some point to financial disparity between the men's and women's tours as more evidence that equal pay at the bigger events is unjustified, there is a danger for the lower-ranked men in pointing to commercial factors to determine the compensation scale. Other arguments used in favor of not having equal prize money have in the past included the men's greater tennis strength -- even fringe male pros could probably beat the top women -- and the best-of-five versus best-of-three argument. (Greater depth of competition has also been cited, but these days there are more upsets in the women's draw than the men's.)
The popularity argument, by contrast, has just as often been invoked by supporters of the women's game, who point out that at the combined events the women tend to generate a level of attention comparable to the men.
That's less true these days, partly because of the recent chaos at the top and lack of great matches in the later rounds. But it's also in significant part because the trio of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer overshadowing everyone else in the sport -- women included. Below them, the next biggest names continue to be a mix of guys and girls, as illustrated by Sharapova's withering response to Simon about more people watching her matches than his.
In the end, the entertainment argument tends to support giving more money to the top, which isn't the aim of those bringing it up. Rather, the push for more money from the cash-rich majors is to give low-profile players the means to play, to develop their games and compete effectively against those who are already at the top. It's from these ranks that future stars and cult characters usually emerge.
Majors yield paycheck
Some female pros want to be allies with the men rather than enemies, especially since they are often even more dependent on Grand Slam winnings. One of the feel-good stories at this year's Wimbledon has been the run of Mirjana Lucic, who reached the third round of a Grand Slam for the first time since 2001.
For Lucic, this week has not been about money. "I have no idea what I won and I don't even care," she said. "It's not about that at all. For me it's about being in a Grand Slam and being in the third round."
But she acknowledged it is also the culmination of a sustained effort that requires financing. "There are still a lot of improvements that need to be done by the [International Tennis Federation]. We, as players, don't earn nearly enough as we should," she said.
The former phenom won the first WTA tournament she entered and made the semifinals of Wimbledon as a teenager in 1999 but had to flee her native Croatia to escape an abusive father. Her career stalled shortly afterward, and for a while she ran out of money to travel the circuit. A comeback that began in 2007 has taken some time to yield results.
"When you start [to come back], you cannot compete at this level because your ranking is not high enough," said Lucic, now a 30-year-old veteran. "So it took me a long time, without [m]any wild cards or any help from anyone. It's difficult because you have to play seven, eight matches every week."
Though she played a full season of minor league challenger events in 2010, over half her earnings for the season came at the Grand Slams -- a first-round loss as a qualifier at Wimbledon and a second-round result at the U.S. Open. Even now, her guaranteed check of about $61,000 for reaching the third round at Wimbledon this week will be more than she has earned while playing the main WTA circuit so far this year.
For Kudryavtseva, it makes more sense to focus on the size of the pie, rather than how to divide it up. "I think what we should fight for -- and not against the guys, or guys against us -- overall we should fight for more money in tennis," she said.
"Because it's a great sport, it's entertainment, there are all kinds of different people -- short, tall, fit ... well, now they're all fit," she broke off with a laugh. "Fast, slow, quick hands -- not so quick hands. There are just so many ways to go about it and win. I think it should interest more people around the world.
"So I think that's the issue. And really, Gilles should look for money elsewhere and not take it from the girls."