By: Cameron Barlow
In 2005, Venus Williams prepared to cement her return to the top tier of women’s professional tennis. Williams, the former number one player in the world, met then number one player Lindsey Davenport in the final of The Championships, Wimbledon. The two players would participate in the longest Wimbledon ladies’ final in history, a match two hours and forty-five minutes, with Williams winning in three sets. On the court, Williams celebrated a legendary victory, but her actions off the court on the previous day set the stage for an even bigger victory in the fight for pay equality at Wimbledon.
The Championships, Wimbledon began in 1877, is considered the most prestigious of the four major tennis tournaments around the world. Professional players gained entrance into the participating field at Wimbledon in 1968 and with that began the action of awarding prize money to the athletes. Similar to the treatment of other minority groups during that time period, the prize money for the championships, was awarded unfairly and unequally with the male athletes receiving more awarded money than the female athletes. This inequality creates both a class and gender issue surrounding the athletes at the tournament.
Tennis, like any other professional sport, is a business and the athletes are the most valuable commodity. Commodification is seen as attaching value to things or people for their ability to impress an audience or for selling opportunities. Thinking of athletes as commodities can lead to the athletes being treated more like a product than people. In this manner, decisions on prize money can be made by determining what value the male athletes are worth to the sport of tennis versus the female athletes. At the time of Venus Williams’ championship victory in 2005, it was determined that her value as champion of Wimbledon was worth over $100,000 dollars less than that of Roger Federer, the gentlemen’s champion in that same year. Awarding less prize money for women at Wimbledon shows that the officials of the tournament place lesser value on the female athlete than the male. It represents a view that all of the hard work, preparation and accomplishments of the female athlete are second class to the male athlete at the highest regarded major in the sport. For thirty seven years, nothing tangible was done to change this status quo. In 2005, Venus Williams took the opportunity to make a change to the existing rule on awarded prize money, beginning with a meeting with the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.
The fight for pay equality at Wimbledon needed a poster child and Venus Williams was the perfect person to lead the charge. Equally dominant on the court as her highly regarded character off the court, Williams had the status to get the tournament officials’ attention to try and change their minds. Williams took the time in the meeting to describe the proverbial glass ceiling facing professional female athletes playing at Wimbledon. She acknowledged all of the work that the female athletes put in from a young age only to be seen as lesser players because they are not males. Williams’ actions in that meeting inspired the tournament officials to make a change, only not in an acceptable fashion for Williams and the rest of her female peers. In 2006, Wimbledon officials decided to increase the amount of prize money awarded to female athletes at the tournament. This would seem like a win, until one realizes that the officials did not increase the prize money award to equal of the male participants, showing the long-term gender and class biases of the tournament officials of valuing the contributions of the female athletes less than the male athletes. Williams was disappointed in the decision, responding in an op-ed article published in the London Times, saying “that Wimbledon’s stance devalues the principle of meritocracy and diminishes the years of hard work that women on the tour have put into becoming professional tennis players, before proceeding to outline her views on why women deserve equal pay in the sport.
Williams points out the inherently contradictory nature of the way the male and female athletes are treated at Wimbledon outside of the awarded prize money. The athletes play on the same courts, have the same dress code policy, and winners receive the same honorary membership, yet when it comes to awarded prize money, the female athletes are valued less. The athletic capabilities of the female athletes are considered as less than that of the male players and that prevailing thought is fixed into the rule book by having the men play five sets and the women play three. Williams argued that the Chairman of the All England Club even agreed with her that the women were perfectly capable of playing five set matches. Williams also pointed out that Wimbledon was behind its major tournament counterparts. The U.S. Open and the Australian Open already awarded equal prize money to the male and female athletes, without any complaints from the men about receiving the same as the men. However, value in sports is partly quantified through the spectators who watch the product. Historically, the ratings and viewers for the male athletes’ matches have been higher than the female athletes, a phenomenon that continues to this day. Higher ratings and viewers for the male athletes means that spectators value their on-court competition more than female athletes, a counterpoint to Williams’ argument. Despite the ratings and viewers and due to the efforts of Williams and other prominent female tennis players such as Maria Sharapova and Kim Clijsters Wimbledon officials changed their stance and made 2007 the first year that prize money was awarded equally to both the male and female athletes participating in the tournament..
Pay equality has been and continues to be a contentious class and gender issue in the sport of tennis. The athletic capabilities of the female athletes and the work that they have put into their craft has been continually devalued over time. The fight for equal pay that took place in the world of tennis should not be forgotten. Not only does pay inequality devalue the female athletes economically but it also devalues them as people. It is a testament to Venus Williams’ persistent effort to a worthy cause that allowed her and her contemporaries the ability to be rewarded the same prize money for the same major championships as the male athletes. Her extraordinary actions made equal pay an ordinary phenomenon at the world’s most famous tennis major.