Overpoliticizing pay in Tennis

Victoria Azarenka and Novak Djokovic should be proud of themselves after clinching the female and male singles titles at the Australian Open 2012. Both players will see their burgeoning bank accounts bloated even further to the tune of $2,300,000, yet one of the two cruised through three-set encounters against traduced opposition, including a horribly one-sided 6-3 6-0 victory in the final. The other battled through two extraordinary five-set matches, both variably described as “the best Grand Slam match in history”. How can they be receiving equal reward?

This article is not to denigrate female tennis players, or indeed to diminish the achievement of Azarenka, but to look at the bare facts. Djokovic’s semi-final match against our very own Andy Murray was a coruscating display of stamina, determination and unbelievable technical prowess, while his victory over Rafael Nadal was somehow played at an even better level.

Winning those two games of tennis took the 24-year-old Serbian 10 hours and 43 minutes, a truly monumental effort in any sport: he may not be a particularly revered national figure, but Piers Morgan emphatically struck the point home when he commented upon the irony of footballers “complaining after two 90-minute games a week”. Djokovic is currently the figurehead of his sport, ahead of two players who have been described in some quarters as the greatest of all time – Roger Federer and Nadal himself – not to forget Murray, whose undoubted class will surely bring him a Grand Slam soon.

Azarenka, meanwhile, obviously deserved her triumph in the context of the opposition put before her; her gutsy performance against Kim Clijsters in the semi-final deserves particular credit. However, she is undoubtedly competing in a significantly weaker field – that the world no.3 and former Grand Slam winner, Maria Sharapova, can be so ruthlessly dispatched in 88 minutes (as opposed to Djokovic’s 373) indicates a significant issue with the depth and consistency of women’s tennis. The demise of Serena and Venus Williams could be seen in a positive light, as it precipitates a perpetual challenge for the world no.1 spot. This regal position should be fought for tooth-and-nail, and should represent the pinnacle of one’s sporting career.

Instead, without the Williams sisters to unequivocally set a benchmark, the previous incumbent Caroline Wozniacki managed to spend 67 weeks at the top without winning a Grand Slam, while Azarenka is rewarded for her first major triumph. Federer has won 16 Grand Slams and is ranked no.3 because of the titanic struggle between himself, Nadal and Djokovic in arguably the greatest era of all time in men’s tennis. The disparity between these facts makes a mockery of the concept that female and male tennis is at anywhere near an equal level.

The counter-argument, of course, is that female players should not be punished for their lesser physical durability. However, this is to eschew the point that our capitalist society rewards productivity, and hence the requisite earth-shattering investment of effort from players such as Djokovic and Nadal should be appropriately rewarded. Should we pay part-time plumbers as much as politicians because it’s not their fault that their grasp of rhetoric and an ability to promulgate social progression is inferior?

Why aren’t amateur footballers paid as much as Premier League footballers? After all, they aren’t to blame for the gulf in quality, their intrinsic command of technical ability, height and pace is. The arguments would run and run without an acknowledgment of the centrality of productivity and effort, and the social phenomenon that is sexism should not impede clarity of view on the disparity between the states of female and male tennis.

Of course, tennis players as motivated to ascend to the top of their field as Djokovic and Azarenka are not motivated by pecuniary rewards, but by the unquenchable ambition to be the best they can be. Misty-eyed Serbians, recalling the man who stood tall as a national icon in an era of strife and discord, won’t reminisce about the pay cheque Djokovic received, but about how he slumped to the ground after finally killing off Nadal a couple of days after suppressing the seemingly irrepressible in Murray.

Yet equal pay in tennis should not be defended by repeated proclamations of sexual equality, or, worse still, the weary and unjustified cliché that “that’s just how it is”. Women’s tennis has the potential to be gripping and with quality seeping throughout the top 20, but in order to achieve parity with men’s tennis, it must first earn equal pay by ensuring the best players encounter gruelling, fascinating matches of extraordinary longevity and quality in order to inherit the chalice that Azarenka has reached. At the moment, they cannot justify this parity.

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