Women’s Tennis Association | 40 and getting stronger

From the Gloucester Hotel to Singapore, women’s tennis has come a long way

Girl power: (Right to left) Martina Navratilova, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova
Girl power: (Right to left) Martina Navratilova, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova

Next year, when the top eight women’s singles players and top eight doubles teams land in Singapore in October to play the season-ending Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Championships, it isn’t just the physical miles that they’ll cross.

Serena Williams. Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
This year, when WTA celebrates its 40th anniversary, its Asian thrust aims to tap newer markets of the world that were so far untouched.

Singapore—chosen as host for the five-year period—beat 43 other cities that bid to host this event. Twenty-three WTA events will be staged in the Asia-Pacific market in 2014—the first time ever that there will be more tournaments in Asia-Pacific than any other region in the world—up from 16 tournaments this year.

Now there’s money to be made in tennis—Serena Williams made over $12 million (around Rs.75 crore) from prize money in 2013—but until the 1970s, it was difficult for players, especially women, to take up tennis as a full-time career. As per the 2013 WTA Media Guide, the women’s tour offered a total of $118 million in prize money, up from $86 million in 2010 and $47 million in 2007.

But it’s not just more money the women have craved for—it’s equal prize money with the men. Although the US Open started to pay both sexes the same from 1973, it wasn’t till 2006 that the French Open and Wimbledon started to do the same (the Australian Open did so in 2001).

But the question asked most often is: Do men and women deserve to be paid equally?

Maria Sharapova made $3.5 million from prize money in 2013. Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
In this year’s French Open, men played a total of 453 sets in the singles draw while women played 293, according to the tournament website. If you consider tiebreaks as a measure of how close, and therefore, tough a match can get, then the men played 72 tiebreaks while the women played 28. The men played 4,425 games, the women 2,686. En route to the finals, the two men’s finalists (Spain’s Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer) had spent 27 hours and 51 minutes on court. The two women finalists—American Williams and Russian Maria Sharapova—had spent 16 hours and 33 minutes between them.

Former US Open champion Tracy Austin feels time spent on the court is not a good measure. “It’s about entertainment value. Many times, even when matches are decided in straight sets, they are pretty close. Sometimes, the men play too long; I mean, you may not have the time to sit and watch a 3-4 hour match,” she says over the phone from the US.

While the debate of equal pay goes on, gender equality is breaking into unexpected areas. In 2001, when the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships won the right to host a women’s event (it was already hosting the men’s event since 1993), it paid equal prize money. Both of 2013’s singles champions, Novak Djokovic of Serbia and Czech Republic’s Petra Kvitova, took home about $440,000.

An act of desperation?

The Original 9 with one-dollar notes symbolizing the contract with Gladys Heldman in 1970. Photo: Courtesy Wta Tour Inc
The genesis of inequality in tennis lies in the way it was played until the 1970s. Before the Open era came about in 1968, all players couldn’t play at all the tennis tournaments. In those times, a tennis player, man or woman, fell in either of the two categories; amateur (one who is seen to be at the start of his or her career) or professional (a sort of an established player and one who played for money).

Tournaments, too, fell in either of these two categories; amateur tournaments did not allow professional players and the so-called professional player tournaments did not allow amateur players to compete. While the amateur tournaments offered little or no prize money, money was to be made from the professional-only tournaments. Before 1968, once a player turned professional, she or he was not allowed to play amateur tournaments. However, turning professional was mostly an option for men’s tennis players in those days, when a promoter came along and signed players to play any events which he would arrange throughout the year. Although there was some money to be made by turning professional, these players could not play the National Championships (now called the Grand Slams). Needing to survive however, many amateurs took money, which exceeded their expenses, “under the table”. Others had part-time jobs like Gene Scott, a former American tennis player, who was also a lawyer and publisher during his playing days. Fed up of the corruption in tennis but most importantly to allow people to have a career out of playing tennis, the International Lawn Tennis Federation took a decision in Paris on 30 March 1968 to bring about Open Tennis; a move that got worldwide support. Thereafter all players play in all events for money.

The gap, though, remained. At the first Wimbledon that was played in the Open era in 1968, Billie Jean King won £750 (around Rs.75,000 now) for the women’s title, as against Rod Laver who won £2,000 for the men’s. The total prize money that year for the men was £14,800 and £5,680 for women.

Under the aegis of the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA), the Pacific Southwest tournament in Los Angeles in September 1970 announced a prize money of $60,000 for the men and $7,500 for the women—a ratio of 8:1—which experts say was the norm those days. Outraged, nine women players turned to Gladys Heldman, founder-publisher of World Tennis magazine and an influential figure at the time in tennis world.

These women decided to boycott the event and requested Heldman to host a new tournament to be played in Houston. Heldman got cigarette company Virginia Slims to sponsor the event, called the 1970 Virginia Slims Invitational, for the nine women players that came to be later known as “The Original 9”. Along with King and Heldman’s daughter Julie, who was a tennis player at the time, the others were Peaches Bartkowicz, Rosie Casals, Judy Dalton, Kerry Melville Reid, Kristy Pigeon, Nancy Richey and Valerie Ziegenfuss.

The Original 9 at an event in 2012, recreating the old picture, each player in her original position . Photo: Courtesy Wta Tour Inc
The revolution finally reached a boiling point when, three years later in 1973, King got 63 players together in the Gloucester Hotel room, London, where she nudged all to break away from the National Tennis League and other such groups to unite under a common umbrella, which came to be known as the Women’s Tennis Association, or WTA.

Bob Moran, tournament director of the Family Circle Cup, remembers last April when the Original 9 got together for the second time in all these years. “It was an unbelievable history lesson and for any young women out there…to hear the Original 9 discuss all of the trials and tribulations they went through by forming their own tour was unbelievable. For most in the room, the hardships those players felt was the enlightening part of the evening. I believe some of the younger players didn’t fully realize everything those players went through to build the Tour and the sacrifices they had to make,” he said in an email interview. Having begun in 1973, the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, South Carolina, US, is as old as the WTA.


Martina Navratilova. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Just 17 countries held WTA tournaments in 1971—in 2012, the number was 34. Alfred Zhang, general manager and co-tournament director of China Open, one of WTA’s four largest tournaments outside the Grand Slams, feels it wasn’t so easy to get players to take the long flight to Asia.

“At the beginning, Western players were not satisfied when they came to Asia to compete. Whether it was in Beijing, Tokyo, Guangzhou or other Asian cities, it meant getting out of their comfort zone. Playing in new places meant new challenges,” he says.

China Open—it celebrated its 10-year anniversary in October—is now one of the mandatory tournaments for top players apart from being lucrative.

At the end of 2012, players from 36 nations were ranked in the top 100, up from 13 in 1980. In 1980, 59 of the top 100-ranked women were American. At the end of 2012, there were 10 American women in the top 100.

“It is a testament to the growth of the game globally. More countries are starting to put money into their tennis programmes which has helped improve the overall quality of tennis,” says Kim Hall Uliasz, tournament director of Bank of the West Classic, a women-only event that takes place at the Stanford University, US.

Is there a cost to the adulation?

Apart from former world No.1 Monica Seles getting stabbed at an event in Hamburg (Germany) in 1993 by a crazed fan of former German tennis star Steffi Graf (Seles’ main rival at the time), burnouts have been aplenty: In 2006, for instance, withdrawals from tier-I events by players ranked in the top 10 more than doubled to 31 from 13 in 2005. The WTA tour had cited the main reasons to be injury or fatigue.

Effective 2009 though, the WTA made changes; it rationalized the events on the tour and shortened the playing season (it now ends in October as against November earlier), among other things.

Austin feels the WTA means more than just going tournament hopping. “It’s a life that they have been hoping for, a lifestyle, a career that they have been hoping to achieve,” she says. Given that five of the top 10 richest tennis stars are women (Sharapova earned more money than Nadal and Djokovic between June 2012 and June 2013, according to Forbes magazine), the WTA balance sheet is certainly getting healthier. And no one’s complaining.

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