Yes, Female Tennis Players Deserve Equal Pay

An article in the preceding issue of Woroni by Gary Oldman “Do female tennis players deserve equal pay” requires a response, principally because it misses the key issue of effort.

I have coached women’s and men’s development squads for various Australian tennis associations. I also have several friends on the tour or recently retired. In my experience, women train just as hard as men, if not more so, well past the point where it affects the menstrual cycle. Other than the Williams sisters, I have yet to come across a story of a female tennis player who is lax when it comes to putting in hours on the practice court, while stories of such male players abound (it was, for example, the principal reason why nothing ever came of Chris Guccione). A similar trend is evident in the propensity of players to party too hard.

Female players also sacrifice just as much as men. Tennis is an extremely demanding sport, with one of the longest seasons (from late January to early December) and a very long training day (up to ten hours including warm up and cool down). Holding down these commitments requires players to abandon just about everything else—studies, hobbies, friends outside of tennis etc. These requirements are identical for both genders.

One last sacrifice that must be mentioned, if only because Oldman claimed people only watch Maria Sharapova because “they want to fuck her”, is that tennis is arguably not good for the female aesthetic. Few people would argue with the proposition that Maria looked even more stunning when she won Wimbeldon age 17 than she does now. The reason for this is that she is twice as muscular and her shoulders look like she could perform an Argentine back breaker on John Cena.

A similar phenomenon affects many female players who give up conventionally attractive, lithe frames to bulk up and be competitive on the adult circuit. Some players will go so far as to carry extra weight in order to hit the ball harder. Marion Bartoli bore years of abuse for her overweight frame in exchange for a competitive edge. Men do not need to make this trade off because the sport makes them conventionally beautiful—tall, lean and muscular.

A central argument of Oldman’s is that women play fewer sets than men. But outside the Slams and Davis/Federation cup, that is, in more than 95 per cent of tour events, men and women play the same number of sets.

Oldman’s single standard of tennis for both genders is also misguided. Due to the physiological differences that he outlines, women’s tennis is defined by different parameters and consequently allows for the enjoyment of dimensions of tennis that are often missing from men’s matches. To draw on just one example from Oldman’s piece: women do serve slower, on average, than men. But this is only a problem if you think repetitive games of aces are enjoyable to watch. Slower serves mean returns are frequently spectacular in women’s tennis, something rarely seen in the men’s game. As a consequence, points in the women’s game often start off on an equal footing, and this leads to a different progression of the ups and downs of women’s matches compared to the men’s game, which is entirely about breaking serve. By extension, some play styles, especially counter-punching, are far better represented amongst female players than amongst men, which leads to a diversity of matchups.

So if we’re talking about what people deserve, then women deserve equal pay. The question can only be answered in the negative if the market mechanism is used as the ultimate measure of justice, which would seem to confuse what you deserve with what you’ve earned. The argument goes that your pay should reflect how much you contribute to your employer’s revenue. As women are sometimes on court for less time they must contribute less to revenue and should therefore be paid less.

There are three further reasons why this market logic falls down in the case of tennis. First, as Oldman notes, people watch Sharapova’s (and other women’s) games for reasons other than the tennis. Time on court is therefore a poor measure of a female player’s total contribution to the profitability of a tournament, especially given that all female players warm up on side courts as well as participating in matches.

Secondly, in the context of the chatter that afflicts other sports over the need to present a socially upstanding image, being progressive on pay contributes immeasurably to tennis’ image and therefore its profitability. It is especially fitting that the Slams pay equally because they are the most public face of professional tennis.

Finally, the “justice” of the market mechanism as articulated by Hayek is predicated on the idea that the person who wants a good the most will pay the most for it. This doesn’t map on to tennis tournaments because tickets are bought for the entire day or for day/night sessions that include both male and female players. Television rights and endorsement opportunities are similarly granted on mass. The women’s and men’s draws thus work collectively to enhance the profitability of a tournament.  Ironically, with some data in hand, one could potentially argue that women are more profitable because they draw more ticket holders relative to court time than men.

There are plenty of instances where society, institutions, groups or individuals feel that there are non-market ethical reasons to make a certain decision. In this case, even without resorting to arguments about market justice or the need to forcefully drive gender equality, we have a good reason to claim women deserve equal pay—equal effort and sacrifice. At the end of the day, it is a decision for the tournaments to make, and I for one commend them for their policy.

Mark Fabian is the head coach of the ANU Tennis Club and blogs at markfabian.blogspot.com