Unequal Say

Wednesday, March 23, 2016 /by
When you look back at the birth of pro tennis in the early 70s, Moore’s split personalities aren’t quite as surprising. (AP)
When you look back at the birth of pro tennis in the early 70s, Moore’s split personalities aren’t quite as surprising. (AP)

With his mutton chops and long blond hair, Ray Moore apparently cut a memorable figure among his clean-shaven colleagues in the heady early days of the pro era. In Gordon Forbes’ memoir of tennis in the 60s, A Handful of Summers, the author recounts being approached by his fellow South African at Queen’s Club in London.

“My first impression,” Forbes writes of Moore, “was that I was being accosted by an animated, blonde witch doctor.”

In Richard Evans’ history of the modern game, Open Tennis, Moore appears “attired as a 60s refugee from the King’s Road complete with droopy mustache and shoulder-length hair.” 

More important than his fashion sense, though, was Moore’s role in the revolutionary tennis politics at the dawn of the Open era. With his friend, Arthur Ashe, he was an early leader and eventual president of the breakaway player group that would become the ATP. In Evans’ book, Moore, looking like a grinning wolf man in shades, is shown arm in arm with Gladys Heldman, one of the founders of professional women’s tennis.

Can this be the same man who is now the CEO of the BNP Paribas Open, and who made the following statement in a press conference at his event on Sunday, in reference to the WTA:

“If I was a lady player, I’d go down on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried the sport. They really have."

Yes, yes it is. 

Yet when you look back at the birth of pro tennis in the early '70s, Moore’s split personalities aren’t quite as surprising as they seem now. For all of its progressive thinking on behalf of its own players, the ATP didn’t have much use for women’s tennis. Here’s what Billie Jean King wrote in her autobiography about her attempt to join forces with the men during their boycott of Wimbledon in 1973:

"At this time," she wrote, "I was leading the movement to create the Women’s Tennis Association just as Ashe and several other men had spearheaded the Association of Tennis Professionals the September before.

"Never mind that the so-called Association of Tennis Professionals would not admit female tennis professionals; I went to Arthur and the other leaders of the ATP, and I told them, ‘Look, we want to support you in this fight, so let’s work together and if you do boycott Wimbledon, we’re very likely to walk out with you.’

“Now get the picture: the men have a dispute, and we are offering, free and clear, no strings attached, to stick our necks out and support them ... So it was utterly in the men’s self-interest to accept our assistance. And did they? They wouldn’t even respond. I was never able so much as to get the ATP leaders to sit down and explore matters.”

That was the Original Split, and it still haunts the sport 43 years later. It hobbled efforts to govern the game and market its stars, led to the departure of WTA chief Larry Scott—who tried to bring the tours closer at the end of the last decade—and resulted in an unending debate about equal prize money. You could hear an echo of that split in the words of the current ATP No. 1, Novak Djokovic, on Sunday.

“I understand how much power and energy WTA and all the advocates for equal prize money have invested in order to reach that,” Djokovic said in Indian Wells. “I applaud them for that, I honestly do. They fought for what they deserve, and they got it.

"On the other hand, I think that our men’s tennis world, ATP world, should fight for more, because the stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men’s tennis matches. I think that’s one of the, you know, reasons why we should get awarded more.”

We should start by saying that, while men and women are paid equally at the Grand Slams and some of the dual-gender events like Indian Wells, the men make more prize money than the women over the course of the season. The ATP and WTA are separate companies, with separate revenues and bottom lines, and the men’s tour is the richer organization. 

It was unclear whether Djokovic wanted to reopen the equal prize money debate at the majors, which has been declared closed by the head of the ATP Player Council, Eric Butorac; or whether he thinks the men should be awarded more at other dual-gender tournaments; or whether he just wants to make sure that the men make more overall. 

Nobody would blame Djokovic for saying that the ATP should fight to increase prize money, but why specifically say that it should be more than the women make? Why not say that the whole sport should fight together to be paid more? Unfortunately, going back to 1973, that’s not how pro tennis has ever operated.

What about Djokovic’s point regarding “stats showing we have much more spectators on the men’s tennis matches?” Is it possible, at a dual-gender event like Indian Wells, to tell which player a spectator wants to see when he or she buys a ticket? Some are Roger Federer fans, others are Serena Williams fans; should we count the number of people in the bleachers at each match and award prize money to the players based on how many they drew? 

Most ticket-buyers, in my opinion, come to the Grand Slams or tournaments like Indian Wells to watch tennis, to soak it up, to be surrounded by it, to wander from match to match, to be part of a huge, festive event. These tournaments are celebrations of the sport, and they wouldn’t be as much fun, or have as much impact, if the whole sport wasn’t represented. Indian Wells, not to mention the U.S. Open, wouldn’t be the same if it were single gender

While Wimbledon is famous for champions like Federer, Pete Sampras, Boris Becker and Bjorn Borg, it’s also famous for champions like Venus and Serena Williams, Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova and King. Each of these personalities has contributed to Wimbledon's rich history and enduring popularity. That variety is unique to tennis, and, while it has never been properly exploited, is one of its strengths.

What about TV ratings? Those can be driven by a single star of either gender, and they can vary from country to country. Over the last 15 years in the U.S., ESPN has often reported higher ratings for the women’s game, due in large part to the presence of the Williams sisters. In the U.K., ratings at Wimbledon are higher for the men, due to the presence of Andy Murray. I’m guessing, though, that when Virginia Wade was on Centre Court in the 70s, the ratings for the women—i.e., Wade—were higher than the men.

As I’ve written before, I’m in favor of equal pay at the majors, even though the men play three-out-of-five sets and the women play two-out-of-three. It’s a fact that shouldn’t be ignored; if you’re a ticket buyer and you have a choice between the men’s final or the women’s final at a major, you might choose the men simply because you’re guaranteed to see more tennis. But as I wrote above, that doesn’t mean the women contribute less to the popularity of the Slams as a whole. 

In the past, there hasn’t been much talk about equal pay at the tours’ other dual-gender tournaments. The issue at these events isn't how long the matches are—men and women both play two-of-three sets—but where the money comes from. While the Slams put up their own purses, the tours are involved in contributing to the pots and setting the prize-money levels at dual-gender Masters events, and the ATP can afford to set those levels higher. Indian Wells, Miami and Madrid, two of which are owned by billionaires and the other by IMG, pay equally anyway; but the ATP offers more than the WTA in Rome, Canada and Cincinnati. Again, this goes back to the Original Split: Even when the tours travel together, they sell themselves separately. 

To see what happens when the tours do business together, you only have to look at the Grand Slams to get an idea; it’s not a coincidence that they’ve become more successful, powerful and prominent with each passing year. You could also look at the social-media buzz that surrounded the IPTL team league during its debut run in 2014. When everyone was together—Roger, Serena, Gael, Maria, etc.—the star power of tennis expanded exponentially. 

That kind of dual-gender appeal is the future, at least in the States. This is an era when young boys happily watched the U.S. women’s soccer team win the World Cup, and when ESPN has successfully marketed a female fighter, Ronda Rousey, to male fans. Tennis should be well-prepared to take advantage of any rise in interest in women’s athletics.

It won’t start with prize money; it will start with the way the men in the sport think and talk about it. Djokovic, in stating that the ATP has more fans than the WTA, was likely echoing the opinion of the vast majority of his colleagues. The only male pro I can remember consistently recognizing and praising women’s tennis is Murray. Hopefully Murray, the first ATPer to ignore the game’s Original Split, can be a transitional figure to a future where the men see the benefit of having a strong women’s game alongside them, and of not seeing their tour as an automatically superior entity. It will be interesting to see how Murray responds to this latest controversy in Miami this week.

Who could have sat through Sunday’s finals at Indian Wells and not seen how much Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka, with their games and their words, brought to the day? Who could have watched the tournament over its two weeks and not seen how much better it was with Serena in it, and how many fans came to see her play? What else did a young Ray Moore and his fellow pros fight for but that?

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