Caroline Wozniacki, the world number five, has highlighted the disparity in coverage of women’s tennis on the Wimbledon show courts. In the first week of this year’s tournament, Centre Court and Court One featured either two or three women’s singles matches between them, while there were at least four men’s matches a day on the same courts.
The Dane said “The women really haven’t gotten the opportunity here to play on the big courts. You only get one women’s match on Court One and Centre Court. Most of last week it was only one women’s match on Court Two as well. It’s definitely different, that’s all I can say. I think a lot of us women feel like we deserve to play on the big courts in front of a big crowd, as well.”
She has a point. Kevin Anderson, at fourteenth, is the highest seed in the men’s singles not to have had all of his matches on Centre Court or Courts One to Three. In the women’s tournament, Wozniacki herself (5th seed), Lucie Šafářová (6th), Agnieska Radwańska (13th), Carla Suárez Navarro (9th), Angelique Kerber (10th) and Karolína Plíšková (11th) have all had some of their matches away from the show courts, the latter three of whom never even got one match on a show court.
The Wimbledon organisers would argue that the biggest stars of tennis, regardless of gender, are the ones who get the prime slots. As well as Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal, Andy Murray and Roger Federer, the likes of Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, the reigning champion Petra Kvitová and the rising star Genie Bouchard have all received the show court treatment at this year’s Championships.
However, the number of show court slots afforded to women’s matches means something doesn’t add up. Given that the women’s tournament is played as the best of three sets, the matches are shorter, and the organisers could fit more of them on to the show courts. TV companies would be happier too, as there would be fewer extended matches cutting into other programmes. No more Sue Barker voiceovers announcing: “Countryfile will follow the end of this match.”
Perhaps the Wimbledon officials would argue that the women’s game lacks the quantity of star players that the men’s has. But if there are fewer female ‘stars’, why is that? In the men’s game, where the grand slam tournaments are played as best of five sets, the most talented players rise to the top and stay there. Having to win three sets a match massively reduces the chance of a fluke victory for a lower ranked player. As a result, the best male players continue to be the highest seeds and receive favourable draws, reinforcing their status.
On the other hand, in the best of three format, upsets are frequent, and highly ranked female players are regularly knocked out in the early rounds of grand slams. Two bad sets and you’re out, meaning good players fall down the rankings, get harder draws next year, and the cycle continues. This year’s Wimbledon women’s quarter-finals feature eight completely different players from 2014.
Should women play five sets at grand slams? Opinion is split. Since the grand slam tournaments began paying equal prize money in their men’s and women’s competitions in 2007, the question has been raised as to whether should earn the same amount of money, despite only needing to win 14 sets to win a championship, as opposed to the 21 required of men.
The head of the Women’s Tennis Association, Stacey Allaster, says women are “ready, willing and able” to play five sets, but admits there are difficulties regarding scheduling and a shift in TV viewing habits towards shorter forms of sport. Andy Murray, a high-profile supporter of the women’s game described by Serena Williams as “inspiring” and whose coach is the two-time grand slam winner Amélie Mauresmo, has suggested that women play best-of-five at grand slams.
Meanwhile, 2013 Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli questions whether women’s bodies are made for five-set tennis. She suggests instead that the men’s game is reduced to a best of three format. Speaking to Sky Sports, Bartoli said: “I think sometimes the men can play three sets and just play maybe the final of a grand slam in five rather than the whole tournament in five sets because it’s gruelling for them as well.”
This is the format used by the men’s singles tournament at the Olympics and could be a good compromise, at least as an experiment. Three-set tennis for women is a relic of an age where the sport was viewed as an inferior version of the men’s game, and deserves at the very least to be challenged.
[Ally Shaw – @radalias]