When it comes to how much men’s and women’s tennis players should paid, relative to each other, no one can seem to decide what the correct measuring stick is. Should it be the amount of time they spend on court? How many tickets they sell? The TV ratings they generate? While I watched the first week of this year’s French Open, a new—and admittedly biased—category came to mind: How much entertainment value, as a whole, does each side bring to the enthusiastic, committed tennis fan?
By the end of this tournament, there’s a good chance it will be the men who command the lions’s share of attention. With all of the Big 4—plus Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils—alive on the men’s side, and Serena Williams, Li Na, and Victoria Azarenka not alive on the women’s, it seems probable that the late-round ratings will be higher for the men. If Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer reach the last weekend, the ATP will surely dominate in the media. You can almost read the the mainstream U.S. press articles now: “In the French Open final, it’s Sharapova vs. ... Who?”
By this measure, a tennis tournament can only succeed if it draws in millions of “casual fans.” And from a business perspective, it’s true, the more people who watch, and who see the various logos on display around the courts, the happier the sport’s sponsors will be. But as a non-casual fan, why should I have to worry about whether people who don’t normally care about the sport can be made to care about it for three hours a year?
Tennis, and especially the Grand Slams, will go on without them, and will continue to appeal to the passionate minority who are naturally inclined to like a one-on-one, non-contact, dual-gender, thoroughly international sport. Think of the women’s semifinals at Wimbledon last year: With all of the WTA’s stars gone, the press spent much of its time alarming us about the coming ratings debacle. Meanwhile, the tennis fans who did watch saw one of the best matches of the year, the semi between Sabine Lisicki and Agnieszka Radwanska.
Looking back over the last seven days, many of us enthusiastic, committed tennis fans would say that the women’s side was the place to be, and to watch. While the men’s draw has for the most part proceeded in an orderly, predictable fashion, the women’s has been a free-for-all. The top three seeds—Serena, Li Na, and Radwanska—were all gone by the fourth round, replaced for the moment by an exciting group of young players who have grabbed the spotlight in a variety of ways.
We’ve seen 20-year-old Garbine Muguruza of Spain beat Serena Williams with remarkable power, and even more remarkable poise. We’ve seen 20-year-old Anna Schmiedlova of Slovakia do the same to Serena’s sister, Venus. Eighteen-year-old Taylor Townsend gave us a glimpse of a major raw talent in the making; her smile and personality are already world-class. Ajla Tomljanovic, 21, of Croatia, unveiled her full range of skills in out-Aga-ing Aga.
Eugenie Bouchard and Sloane Stephens, 20 and 21, respectively, have kept their big-match reputations intact by reaching the fourth round. Simona Halep, 22, a tennis player’s tennis player, and Andrea Petkovic, one of the sport’s most engaging personalities, joined them. While Monfils and Tsonga raised the roof in Court Suzanne Lenglen, so did their countrywomen, Kristina Mladenovic (in victory) and Alizé Cornet (in valiant defeat). And if controversy is your thing, Angelique Kerber had you covered with her, “I can't seem to recall what happened 30 seconds ago” routine against Daniela Hantuchova on Friday.
Other than Serena’s defeat, I doubt any of this made ESPN’s SportsCenter in the States, or the back page of a tabloid in London. But it has been a good week for a women’s tour looking for new blood. And while the absence of marquee players may hurt ratings, those who follow closely know that a section of the draw in which the seeds have been eliminated can be the most compelling of all. When dozens of players suddenly have a chance to reach their first major semi or final—as the women in the bottom half in Paris do—every match in every round becomes that much more crucial. Knowing that is one of the benefits of being a serious, rather than a casual, tennis fan.
I’ve supported equal pay at the Slams based on the notion that most spectators come to them to see an event, rather than any single player or gender, and that one of the reasons the majors are so appealing as events—so grand, as it were—is that every pro tennis player is there, in one place; they wouldn't be the same if they were single gender. At the same time, I can’t dismiss the fact that the men are forced to spend more time on court to earn their equal share. Ultimately, the market will rule. Equal-pay outrage aside, when the prize money is added up at every tournament across both tours, the men receive more of it than the women.
Sometimes, though, it’s worth valuing the enthusiastic fans—the ones who follow the whole game, but whose numbers will never blow up the ratings or attract giant sponsor dollars. I’m guessing most of us found that the women’s game was a pretty good value this past week.