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Game, Set, Matching Prize Money

Jul 15, 2013

The excuses were hollow and chauvinistic.

We play more sets so we deserve more prize money.

Our television ratings are better so we deserve more prize money.

Our ticket prices are higher so we deserve more prize money.

The counterarguments to these fallacies and the rocky road to equal prize money were at the crux of the documentary Venus VS., an ESPN Films production directed by Ava DuVerney.  The film chronicled Venus Williams’ transformation from an introvert champion to an off-court equal rights maverick.

In the spotlight of the prize money quarrel was The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (AELTC), Wimbledon’s governing body.  Along with the French Open and Australian Open, AELTC did not join the US Open when they changed their prize money bylaw in 1973.  Instead, AELTC stoked the fire with startling and abrasive comments.

“If we paid women more, we would not have as much to spend on petunias,” said a Wimbledon official in 1999.

There was no organized response to the callous commentary.  The WTA longed for a spokeswoman who would re-ignite the equality movement started by Billie Jean King.

Then Venus arrived on the scene.

She was an outsider; an outlier that did not fit the mold of the prototypical tennis player.  She grew up in Compton, hardly a city known for producing tennis gems.  She stopped participating in junior tournaments at age eleven even though she compiled a 63-0 record.  The beads in her hair were a source of turmoil (she was penalized in the 1999 Australian Open when she lost a couple of beads during a point and the umpire ruled her opponent was distracted).  And her off-court demeanor did not engender friendships with fellow tour players.

“I was really quiet,” said Venus in the documentary.  “I did not care about the other players.  I only sat with my mom and sister in the locker room.”

The bump delivered by Irina Spirlea during a changeover in a 1997 US Open semifinal encapsulated the feelings harbored towards Venus.

“I’m not going to move,” said Spirlea after the match.  “She never tries to turn and she thinks she’s the [expletive] Venus Williams.”

As one reporter opined in Venus VS., it was her outsider status that endeared her to the equal prize money spokeswoman role.

Venus did not have an affinity for the norm and that attitude spurred her actions.  She was not apprehensive in tackling the issue even if it upset fellow players.  She did not care if it jeopardized her sponsorship deals despite inking a contract with Reebok worth $40 million over six years.  In tandem with WTA marketing officials and UNESCO, she was hell-bent on challenging the institution on a global scale.  Wimbledon was just the beginning.

One of the campaign’s seminal moments was a Grand Slam Committee meeting in 2005.  It was the day before the Wimbledon Women’s Final and Venus was set to battle archival Lindsay Davenport.  But she had made a promise to then-WTA president Larry Scott to make an appearance at the conference.  Venus stood in front of the Committee and pleaded her case.

“Imagine you’re a little girl,” said Venus. “You’re growing up.  You practice as hard as you can, with girls, with boys.  You have a dream.  You fight, you work, you sacrifice to get to this stage.  You work as hard as anyone you know. And then you get to this stage, and you’re told you’re not the same as a boy.  Almost as good, but not quite the same.  Think how devastating and demoralizing that could be.”

The movement reached its apex on June 26, 2006.  In an op-ed piece that appeared in the London Times, Venus unleashed an all-out assault on Wimbledon’s primitive thinking.

“I feel so strongly that Wimbledon’s stance devalues the principle of meritocracy and diminishes the years of hard work that women on the tour have put into becoming professional tennis players,” wrote Venus.  “The message I like to convey to women and girls across the globe is that there is no glass ceiling.  My fear is that Wimbledon is loudly and clearly sending the opposite message.  I intend to keep doing everything I can until Billie Jean’s original dream of equality is made real.  It’s a shame that the name of the greatest tournament in tennis, an event that should be a positive symbol for the sport, is tarnished.”

After the op-ed piece and substantial political interference (Tony Blair endorsed the change during a Parliament session), Wimbledon finally relented.  AELTC distributed equal prize money in 2007.  And who would take home the first paycheck in this new era?  Of course.  Venus.  She defeated Marion Bartoli in straight sets.

In the off-court match-up versus women’s tennis critics, Venus had silenced their ignorant excuses.

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