Arguments can never be won if we can’t agree on value.
In March of this year, former Indian Wells tournament director, Raymond Moore, referred to the women’s game as inferior to the men’s game. He resigned soon afterwards. In the immediate aftermath, world number one Novak Djokovic piped up to implore the men’s game to do more to promote itself – essentially – as worthy of more money than female tennis players.
Djokovic, who has since made a partial U-turn on that stance, misses the point, I think, on why many millions of people around the world love watching professional tennis. He has, perhaps, as many others before him have also, been sucked into believing the rhetoric that has long stacked the odds against women’s tennis. When one thinks that women’s tennis is probably one of the most equal sports on the planet in terms of gender equality: in terms of pay, broadcast coverage and spectator crowds. In some ways that makes the pre-historic argument that men’s tennis has more value than women’s tennis even more depressing.
One argument is around the concept of ‘strength in depth’ (good quality tennis players deep into the rankings, from 1 to 50, let’s say). The more strength in depth, the better the quality of all matches in a tournament is likely to be; if it’s feasible that the player ranked 30 in the world can beat a player inside the top 10 then more exciting and unpredictable matches are the result.
Media have their own pre-historic (and un-changing) ideas about strength in depth’, though. If Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, Murray or Wawrinka are defeated in the early rounds of a tournament, ‘strength in depth’ is quoted as the reason. The men’s game is ‘strong’ and the public is informed that ‘any player can beat the top players on any given day’. If Williams, Sharapova, Azarenka or Kerber or Muguruza lose early, strength in depth is never the reason. Ever. This is despite the fact that the last two years in particular has seen a lot of seeds going out early in the majors on both the men’s and women’s side. On the women’s side, if top seeds lose in the early rounds of a major it is because they had a ‘shocker’. They played badly, nothing to do with the relative strength of their opponent. Conversely, when Djokovic, Nadal, Wawrinka and Murray get to the semi finals of a major, we are told how great these players are, how far ahead of the rest of the pack they are. When the same happens on the women’s side it is because the there is no quality in women’s tennis lower down the rankings, and the pundits generally bemoan the ‘predictability’ of the women’s game.
The term ‘strength in depth’ (not one I’m fond of in any case), is used only as a positive in the men’s game, only as a negative in referring to the women’s game. There is a qualitative blindness that follows the women’s game that is quite shameful and, possibly, quite unconscious.
The second argument that hangs around the ‘women’s tennis is inferior to men’s tennis’ camp is the amount of tennis played. Men play best-of-five sets and women play best-of-three, therefore men should be paid more. Many people will know that men only play best-of-five in the Grand Slam events (four per year), plus Davis Cup. Now let’s consider the fact that up until around 2007, Master Series events (high-ranking events just below Grand Slams in terms of stature) played best-of-five sets for the men. They no longer do. There weren’t too many male tennis players complaining about the change. Best-of-five set tennis can be exciting, but can also be a dull as dishwater. Women have tried it. They did it, but I suspect they didn’t like it, which is possibly much the same as the men, really.
The final argument tends to pop up around ‘popularity’: more spectators are at the grounds to see men’s tennis than women’s tennis. I think, generally, your average tennis spectator would prefer to watch a men’s match where they had little idea who one or either of the players is, than a women’s match where they have little idea who one or either of the players. This is purely anecdotal, though. So in one sense that argument does hold up. However, like many other sports, tennis spectators are a diverse bunch, and there will be tribes who know exactly who they’re following, ones who just like to be at the grounds watching lots of matches, and others who enjoy watching tennis but don’t follow it that closely and aren’t aware of many tennis players (male or female) outside of, say, the top 20. When you have a marquee match it doesn’t matter whether it’s a men’s match or women’s match: people who love tennis will want to watch it, as will the more casual sports fan. That’s value and that’s what all the best players bring, male or female.