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50 years of Open Era tennis: More needs to be done to balance the sport

Along with celebrating the distinctions this great sport has managed to erase, it is also time to look ahead at how many more remain

editorials Updated: Apr 27, 2018 19:32 IST
Garbine Muguruza of Spain plays a forehand in her semi final match against Daria Kasatkina of Russia during day five of the WTA Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship, Dubai Tennis Stadium, February 23, 2018
Garbine Muguruza of Spain plays a forehand in her semi final match against Daria Kasatkina of Russia during day five of the WTA Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship, Dubai Tennis Stadium, February 23, 2018(Getty Images)

It was 50 years ago this week that tennis became the sport we know and love today. The small town of Bournemouth in England hosted the first ever tournament of the Open Era, erasing the distinctions between ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ players. The British Hard Court Championships of 1968 at the West Hants Club paved the way for today’s exciting tennis circuit, allowing top players to make a living from the sport. Until then, professional players were prohibited from competing in tournaments including the Grand Slams by the International Lawn Tennis Federation.

This historic first tournament laid the groundwork for broadening the player base around the world and the setting up of legendary rivalries such as the ones between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal or Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. Many professional women players, including Billie Jean King, however, did not participate in that momentous championship, not least because of the glaring disparity in prize money between the men and women. The first prize in the singles was 1,000 pounds for men and 300 for women. Tennis has come a long way since then, both in terms of the amount of money involved (the top prize at the US Open 2018 was $3.7 million) and the fact that at least at all Grand Slam events, men and women get equal prize money.

There is, however, a long way to go. Tennis is one of the more egalitarian sports, in which the women’s game gets as much attention as the men’s. But an analysis of the money earned by the top players in 2015 found that women consistently earned less than their male counterparts. The top three ranks that year — Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Roger Federer each earned between 104% and 111% more than their female counterparts, Serena Williams, Simona Halep and Garbine Muguruza, respectively. The explanation often offered for this discrepancy is that women play a maximum of three sets in a match, while men play five. This is a poor excuse, because it is only in Grand Slams that the number of sets is different for men and women — and that only because of extremely tight scheduling and the fact that organisers are loath to give women more time on the court, because of the misguided notion that men’s matches are more popular among viewers.

As the Open Era of tennis turns 50, along with celebrating the distinctions this great sport has managed to erase, it is also time to look ahead at how many more remain. Perhaps by the time the 75th anniversary comes around, the pay gap would have been bridged as well.