Is gender equality in tennis—one of very few sports to offer men and women equal prize money—moving backwards?
Ion Tiriac, owner of the Madrid Open tennis tournament, made some controversial comments about women’s tennis last week, effectively implying that he doesn’t believe female players deserve to be paid as much as men.
While the Madrid Open currently pays both genders equally, Tiriac said he is “discussing” the feasibility of continuing to do so, reports the New York Times.
“If I increase the women’s [pay], too, I am broke and I don’t know how to do a tennis event,” Tiriac told the Times, referring to the pay raises demanded by the men’s Association of Tennis Professionals.
“Saying that they’re equal—they’re not equal. I mean, once again, I prefer a woman on the court, they are beautiful on the court,” said Tiriac. “Even Federer, who is very elegant, I prefer an elegant woman, not Mr. Federer. But they are not bringing to the table the same thing.”
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Tiriac’s comments come at a pivotal time for tennis, which has long been seen as a model of gender equality in athletics. While not all tournaments pay men and women equally, the major Grand Slam tournaments—which include big names like the U.S. Open and Wimbledon—do, thanks to the tireless efforts of iconic female pros such as Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, and Serena and Venus Williams.
The past few months have seen a number of setbacks for female tennis players. In March, Indian Wells Tennis Garden CEO Raymond Moore, raised the hackles of players and fans when she said that female tennis players “ride on the coattails of men.” More recently, Andy Murray announced his split from his coach Amelie Mauresmo, the first woman to coach a top male player. Mauresmo, who gave birth to her first child in August, cited the challenges of “dedicating enough time along with the travel” as contributing to the split.
In response to questions about whether Mauresmo being a woman played a role in their breakup, Murray pointed out that “Roger (Federer) stopped working with Stefan Edberg at the end of last year because Stefan Edberg wanted to spend more time with his family” and that “no one sort of batted an eyelid about that,” reports AP.
For advocates of gender equality in sports, these events mark a worrying trend. It was gratifying to see the immediate condemnation of Moore’s remarks—he resigned just a day after they became public—but so far there’s been little outcry over Tiriac’s comments. If tennis executives continue to question the value of women players, there is a danger that sports fans will begin to accept such comments—and perhaps even come to believe that female athletes deserve less.