Who remembers, this time last year, Serena Williams made a splash at the French Open with her custom catsuit? With the WTA adopting new rules, including modernising its dress code in 2019, the conversation about the disparity between men and women in sports is refreshed. Tennis, is said to be more equal in terms of its treatment of its female sportspersons, compared to other sports. Did you even know that the women’s IPL was last month, and the tickets were available for free? That’s how neglected women’s sports in India are.
Your reproach to that statement would be, but wait, Sania Mirza is the face of Indian Tennis, therefore there can be no question of inequality. However, in making the remark you often forget that more men players have represented India at the grand slams than women. Sania Mirza is the only Indian female tennis player to have cracked into the top 100 chart (27 being her highest ranking). The question then arises, why are female players lagging behind?
Women and Tennis: A Brief History
The simple answer is: despite the fact that women have been associated with tennis since its inception, they have not exactly been encouraged. Tennis, as we know it today, began being played around 19th century. It was introduced in India in the 1880s by British officers stationed in India. Discrimination in the sport have persisted since its inception. In the 19th century, women were required to play tennis in a bustle skirt and corset. The prize money given to the men’s winner was disproportionately high when compared with that awarded to the women’s winner. Things have been progressively changing for women in sports, but there is a long way to go before we can say that there is equality with absolute certainty.
Change of outfit!
Thankfully the bustle skirt and corset did not make it into the 20th century version of the game. However, tennis associations have been quick to point out “fashion faux-pas” on the court even requiring some players to change their outfit to continue playing. Among these, Wimbledon enforces the strict dress code of “all whites and conservative attire” for all players. It has famously asked players who do not turn up in all whites, and only whites to change the outfit. In 1985, when Anne White wore a white full sleeves leotard, the outfit was found to be unfit for the Wimbledon stage. Serena Williams and her catsuit caused quite a splash last year. After being rebuked by French Open for wearing a custom bodysuit for medical reasons (to prevent postpartum clotting), she followed it up with wearing a tutu at the US Open, as if questioning if she can be deemed a worthy women’s tennis player if she submitted to the conservative ideas of being feminine. Let’s not forget, in 2005, the Sunni Ulema Board issued a fatwa against our very own Sania Mirza, and decried her outfit as ‘sexual and inappropriate’.
Female players have gone on to show the world that their outfit doesn’t define their ability nor their femininity. The fashion is just for a bit of fun, and functionality. In cold weathers, does it not make sense for female sportsperson to wear leggings or leotards to counter the cold? We have come a long way from bustle skirts and corsets, and the Women’s Tennis Association, as of 2019 allows leggings and mid thigh length compression shorts without a skirt or a dress during matches. However, the WTA’s rules are only valid for the games under WTA tour and not the grand slams.
Almost equal pay…
In 2005, Venus Williams, famously wrote an op-ed piece for the Times, calling out Wimbledon for its discrimination in awarding prize money. She said,
“[Wimbledon’s price structure] devalues the principle of meritocracy and diminishes the years of hard work that women on the tour have put into becoming professional tennis players”
Soon after, Wimbledon become the last of the grand slams to join the equal pay bandwagon in 2007. The US Open was the first to adopt equal pay in 1973, after Billie Jean King threatened to boycott the US Open. Today all major tournaments have equal pay, however, discrepancy continues in the regional and smaller tournaments. Those who argue against equal payment, will bring up that men are required to play three-of-five matches, whereas women are required to play two-of-three matches.
But it isn’t just prize money, it is also brand endorsements and scheduled spots at tournaments. Serena Williams currently holds a record 22 grand slams, whereas Roger Federer holds 17 grand slam titles. According to Forbes list of the highest paid athletes, Federer raked in $58 million in endorsements in 2015, where as Serena Williams took home $13 million in the same year. Inequality translates to brand endorsements, courts that are made available for matches and the television coverage that men’s and women’s matches receive.
Two, three, five…
One the arguments always put forth in defence of not giving women equal pay, is that there is no equal play, i.e. in some major competitions (organised by International Tennis Foundation), men are required to play three-of-five matches, whereas women are expected to play two-of-three matches. Since men exert themselves more, and put themselves at bodily risk to play three-of-five matches, they should get higher pay for it. Okay, valid point, but women have been saying for centuries that they too are capable of playing three-of-five games. Why not let them play and compete for the grand (equal) prize? The well meaning but misguided belief that women are of frail constitution and longer matches exposes them to greater likelihood of injury. Or alternatively, if the logic behind having women play two-of-three game is that its safer for the athletes’ health, why not make the sport safe for all players?
“The asymmetrical, sex-based arrangements in Grand Slam tennis are degrading to female tennis players – and arguably all females – and oppressive to male tennis players – and arguably all males.”Dr. Paul Davis, British Philosophy of Sport Association
Serena Williams has even pointed out that the women’s final lasted 45 minutes longer than the men’s final at the Wimbledon in 2005. Clearly women have the physical strength, stamina and endurance for it. After the epic battle of the sexes match in 1973 between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, where she won in straight sets 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, she famously held that its not about physical strength, women have been playing sets of 5 since players in petticoats in 1891. So if it’s not about physical strength, then why don’t women sports team receive the same sponsorship and coverage as their counterparts?
It won’t sell
Billie Jean King said in Pressure is Privilege, “I think the press was a bit surprised to hear me say that I was not playing the game to prove that women could beat men. I was playing to prove that men and women had the same entertainment value, which is why we should be paid equally”.
It all boils down to the commercial value: whether it would attract enough sponsors and viewers. In 2013, the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation found that female sports received 7% of coverage and 0.4% of the total value of commercial sponsorships. Tennis fares slightly better than other sports, the grand slams schedule and air as many women’s matches as mens. On occasion, the tickets to watch the Williams sister, Martina Navratilova, Anna Kournikova, have been sold out. In 2015, the tickets for women’s US Open sold out before the men’s.
We like the idea of supporting women in sports, but re-watching Chak-de! is not the same as actually supporting women in sports. Our takeaways from movies such as Mary Kom and Dangal should be the extra steps, hoops and obstacles women athletes in India have to go through. Rejoice in their eventual victories on screen, but do something to make the journey for the next Mary Kom, Geeta Phogat, and Sania Mirza easier.
Ask the next generation of national tennis champions, and they will tell you tales of woe at the lack of resources and support to encourage their talents. In a recent interview, India No. 1 female player Ankita Raina opened up about overcoming loneliness during meets, as her sponsorship did not include travel with coach or family. Its the whole chicken and egg situation – without proper sponsorship and investment in training, female sports players cannot hope to compete matching international standards, and they can’t get sponsorship or recognition until they do start playing at the international levels.