September 20, 2023, marked a pivotal moment in women’s tennis as Coco Gauff stood on the stage at the US Open, receiving her $3 million check for winning the tournament. As she glanced towards Billie Jean King, the pioneer who fought for equal pay in tennis, Gauff couldn’t help but express her gratitude. This year commemorated 50 years of equal pay at the US Open, a landmark achievement that paved the way for gender equality in the sport. For Gauff, who is only 19 years old, equal prize money has always been the norm at the US Open, with her paycheck matching that of men’s champion Novak Djokovic.
The US Open was the first sporting event in the world to offer equal purses for its male and female competitors in 1973. This groundbreaking decision set a precedent for the three remaining Grand Slam events, with the Australian Open following suit in 1984 and consistently since 2001, and the French Open and Wimbledon in 2007. Billie Jean King, the founder of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), played a crucial role in championing equal pay and was honored during this year’s US Open for her contributions.
The significance of Billie Jean King’s impact on women’s tennis cannot be overstated. Her historic “Battle of the Sexes” match against Bobby Riggs, which took place 50 years ago on September 20, 1973, was a pivotal moment in the fight for gender equality in sports. King emerged victorious with a resounding 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 win over Riggs in front of an estimated 90 million viewers worldwide. The match was hailed as a triumph for women in sports and remains a symbolic moment in the history of women’s tennis.
While there have been significant strides towards gender equality in tennis, some players believe that there is still more work to be done. Jessica Pegula, world No. 4 and WTA player council member, acknowledges that equal pay is not yet a reality in all tennis events. While the four major tournaments offer equal prize money for both singles champions, many of the other tour-level events do not. Discrepancies in prize money between male and female champions still exist in several tournaments. This is exemplified by the Western & Southern Open, where Novak Djokovic received $1.02 million as the men’s champion, while Coco Gauff, the women’s champion, earned less than half of that amount at $454,500.
Ons Jabeur, world No. 7 and three-time major finalist, believes that the WTA should be doing more to address these disparities. She expresses disappointment in the 10-year plan set by the WTA to achieve equal prize money at all events, questioning why it is taking so long to reach this goal. The WTA acknowledges the need for faster progress but emphasizes the importance of sustainability in the approach. Amy Binder, the WTA’s vice president of global communications, highlights the significant difference in broadcast rights and commercial deals as a contributing factor to the discrepancy in compensation between male and female athletes in sports.
The WTA’s pathway to equal prize money involves requiring top players to participate in more events and extending some of the top-tier 1000-level events from one week to two. While these changes are aimed at achieving gender equality, they are met with mixed reactions from players. Ons Jabeur voices frustration at the notion that female players have to play more tournaments to earn equal prize money. She argues that the popularity and viewership of women’s tennis are evident and should be enough to warrant equal compensation.
Organizational decisions made by the WTA have also come under scrutiny. The delayed announcement of the site for the WTA Finals caused controversy and frustration among players. The event, featuring the top eight singles players and doubles teams of the season, was originally scheduled to be held in Shenzhen, China, from 2022 to 2030. However, it was moved to Fort Worth, Texas, in 2022 due to concerns over the welfare of former doubles world No. 1 Peng Shuai. The lack of fans in attendance at the relocated event raised concerns among players, who wanted to ensure a better experience for both athletes and spectators in future editions.
Despite the progress made in women’s tennis, there are ongoing challenges and areas for improvement. The fight for gender equality in prize money continues, with the WTA working towards equal compensation in all tournaments. Players like Coco Gauff, Jessica Pegula, and Ons Jabeur are vocal advocates for equal pay and encourage further progress. The legacy of Billie Jean King’s efforts remains an inspiration to current and future generations, reminding them of the importance of fighting for equality in sports.