We’ll Never Get Rid Of Sexism In Tennis Until Women Are Given Five Sets

Next year marks 10 years since women were given equal pay. It's about time they were given equal respect.

As far as women in sport go, tennis players seem to have won themselves a comparatively good deal — all Grand Slams since 2007 have awarded equal pay for men and women. And yet, these top athletes are still forced again and again to swat away sexist missives.

Maria Sharapova, for example, is routinely lambasted as too shrieky. Amelie Mauresmo and Serena Williams are criticised for being too masculine, too strong. If you’re a leggy blonde, you’ll be asked to do a little twirl for the camera. If you’re not, you’ll be largely ignored, unless you beat a pretty player to win Wimbeldon — then you’ll be summarily abused on Twitter and called “too ugly to rape”.

The most recent instalment of sexism in tennis came from Indian Wells CEO Raymond Moore, as he gently explained to female tennis players they were riding “on the coattails of the men”. “If I were a lady player I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born because they have carried this sport.”

Just days after this very public misstep, Moore resigned. But his “erroneous” remarks unfortunately resurrected the spectre of debate about equal pay. In Moore’s wake, men’s World Number 1 Novak Djokovic came out and said that men should be paid more because they have more spectators. He was then quickly schooled by tennis great Billie Jean King, while Serena Williams rightly rebuffed his comments, asking him to explain how he would tell his hypothetical daughter that she was entitled to earn less money than his son.

But all this skirts around the ultimate inequality: the game’s structure. Until women are given permission to play five sets in Grand Slams like their male counterparts, these tiresome debates — that the women’s game is inherently inferior, that the athletes are there to be ogled or mocked, that women should be paid less because they play fewer sets — will continue to haunt the sport.


Baseline Tennis: The Rules As They Stand

In the vast majority of tennis tournaments, both men and women play to the best of three sets. If a player wins the first two, they are the victor. If each player wins a set (six games), the third serves as the decider. But these probably aren’t the matches you stay up all night to watch.

During the Grand Slams — the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbeldon and the US Open — men are bumped up to play the best of five sets instead. That means they have to win a total of three and, if they lose the first two, they can still make an almighty comeback — a feat that is absolutely titillating to tennis fanatics. But in these most-watched competitions, if a woman loses her first two sets, it’s game over. 

It’s easy to suppose latent sexism and Victorian-era ideals of ‘the fairer sex’ are to blame here — a question of female players’ stamina and strength. But it hasn’t always been this way. Women hit their way through five sets in the US Open more than a century ago (between 1894 and 1901). This then came back in the finals of the WTA championships between 1984 and 1998.

So, women can physically play out five sets. That’s not in contention. There’s instead a problem with them being given the green light. In 2013, the then head of the WTA Stacey Allaster said women were ready, willing and able to play the five-set format. But the Grand Slam Committee wouldn’t allow it, citing scheduling issues.

Since then Maria Erakovic, New Zealand’s top-ranked player, has also spoken out saying “the women I’ve spoken to on the tour [are] all very open to playing five sets”. And, though she pointed out she couldn’t speak for all players, it’s a fairly common view. Serena Williams, while adamant she “totally could” play five sets, has been fairly casual on the topic. “[It] doesn’t matter to me. Best of five, best of seven, whatever.”

On the flipside, there’s also been talk of cutting the men’s matches down to size. Tennis legend Martina Navratilova has been a particularly vocal advocate, saying the structure puts the body under stress and causes reoccurring injuries in top players. Sharapova too has touted three sets for men, saying it would make the crucial first set more thrilling.

But this has gained little traction. Five set finals are a spectacle and have played host to some of the game’s most memorable triumphs. It’s unlikely the men’s game will pedal back.

What’s The Harm In Difference?

Having women play a truncated version of the Grand Slam game gives a thin veneer of credibility to the idea that women are riding on the coattails of the men, and further, that women should be paid less than men.

It’s true male players do attract more and/or higher-paying spectators. Tickets to the men’s Australian Open final this year cost double that of the same event for the women’s game (around $400 and $200 respectively). This was despite a gripping upset by Angela Kerber over Serena Williams, in contrast to an uninspiring fizzer between lanky rivals Djokovic and Andy Murray.

But Djokovic’s is also a false logic, and falls within a self-fulfilling prophecy. It seems ridiculous that spectators would pay the same price to watch men and women competing under these drastically different conditions. We don’t expect fans to fork out the same amount to watch women swim 30 metres of an Olympic pool, or run 60 metres of the male sprint.

Last year, statistician Stephanie Kovalchik crunched the numbers in a graph-laden piece in Signficance highlighting how the Grand Slam match format is “short-changing women’s tennis”. Though sports reporters revel in a good upset, they tend to characterise women’s matches as “inconsistent” and “unpredictable”. Kovalchik found women’s tennis did, in fact, have greater levels of inconsistency — but only at the Grand Slams, where the set-structure shifts along gendered lines. “Inconsistency in tennis is a problem of match format, not gender,” she concluded.

To some extent, these constant complaints about the women’s game — that it’s inconsistent, weak, or slow — are predetermined: we view women’s tennis as less worthy of our time because the three-set format has already deemed it so.

To give female players all the drama, prowess, and space that men are afforded, they should be scheduled in for five-setters. And it should happen at the Australian Open. The event kicks off the calendar year for the tennis world, and as next year marks a decade since women got equal pay across all four slams, organisers would do well to set the tone.

The fight for equal pay in tennis was a long one, and one sportswomen can’t afford to lose. Tennis is one of the only sports where men and women enjoy some semblance of pay parity; our national soccer team the Matildas went on strike last year because they weren’t even scraping minimum wage. But equal pay has failed to translate to equal respect. As Djokovic has shown after backpedalling from his prior comments, it’s possible to catch on to the concept of real gender equality if you’re open to hearing a new viewpoint.

Let’s hope the Grand Slam Committee hear the rallying cry.

Erin Handley is a journalist at the Phnom Penh Post and a freelance writer. She has worked at Fairfax country papers written for The Age, The Guardian, Right Now, The Australian and Cordite Poetry Review. She tweets at @erinhandley.