Wimbledon continues to do women players a disservice

Wimbledon is Laver but also Margaret Court, Borg-McEnroe head to head but also Evert against Navratilova, Sampras in full cry and Graf let loose. To pay women less is to detract from their contribution to a great tournament, writes ROHIT BRIJ NATH.

Wimbledon is as steady as the seasons. In June, when the gates swing open, it refreshes the senses. In April, when it closes the door on equal prize money for women, it raises the hackles. On court, tennis at Wimbledon moves forward; off it some of its attitudes remain backwards.

In a new millennium, equal prize money should not even merit a discussion, but calendars in SW19 are evidently a century old. Billie Jean King fought and won the Battles of the Sexes 33 years ago, but the war continues. "Before I die I just want to see every major have equal prize money", she said. It could be a fair wait.

The US Open was the first to award similar cheques to both sexes. The Australian Open followed suit. The cunning French have this year agreed to at least pay the champions equally, though in preceding rounds men will be paid more. Wimbledon alone has clung to an antique attitude: the tournament has no roof, but stubbornly insists on a glass ceiling for women.

We love Wimbledon, the lawns that seem cut blade by blade by toe clippers, the studied silence, the "oohs" of a keen shot and the "aahs" of a fallen champion, the scent of history and smell of strawberries. But for a place that prides itself on its manners, this is the oddest of discourtesies.

Women players from that old general Billie Jean to more recent soldiers like Venus Williams are outraged. But perhaps not surprised. Always they have had to fight, constantly they are being asked to prove themselves.

In 1970, as Billie Jean recounts in the book `We Have Come A Long Way,' a tournament promoter offered women's players prize money that was 1/12th of what the men were getting. The women declined. The men were asked to help. They declined. As Billie Jean says in The Rivals, Fred Stolle told her: "No one wants to watch you birds play anyway."

Yes, they did. Yes, we do.

Wimbledon has unwrapped and dusted off an ancient argument in its defence: that men play five sets, women three sets. More work, more pay, simple as that. Presumably we should pay marathon runners more than 100-metre sprinters?

Rewarding men simply for manufacturing a greater of number of shots is absurd, and erroneous. Absurd because quantity can hardly be the sole determining factor, not in a sport, which is more a skilful pursuit than a physical one. Erroneous because in Wimbledon, especially, women create far more extended rallies than men; they have conversations on court, the men often speak in monosyllables, a big serve, a return, a volley, bye-bye.

So now should we start counting shots, and deuces, and who takes longer to serve? I remember reading once that in the Becker-Michael Stich Wimbledon final of 1991, stretching for around two hours or thereabouts, the ball was in play for just over nine minutes. Want to bet the women had the ball buzzing around for longer?

Women anyway may not be averse to five sets, perhaps someone should ask them. But they would do well to refuse (while this writer enjoys five sets for men, it is hard to argue that few are delicious and many tedious). As Billie Jean said anyway: "Entertainers don't get paid by the hour. They get paid, period. If Elton John does a concert, it could last one hour or fours hours, it's a done deal."

Contrasting depths in the two draws is another recurring reason for the prize money inequity: men have it tougher from earlier on in the tournament and to not pay them more might be unfair? Of course, last year at Wimbledon seven of the top 32 men's seeds fell in the first round, but nine of the women's top 32. Furthermore, if 39 of 64 women breezed through the opening round without dropping a set, then so did 39 of the men.

Even if we accede that men face tougher initial-round action, the women are not without their own specific allure. As personalities they are more expressive, in rivalries more deep, as entertainers anyone's equal, in managing to transfer skills from one surface to another more adroit.

The swarm of talent clustered at the top also suggests more women are in contention for Grand Slam titles than is the case with the men. At Wimbledon especially, where Federer appears to have merely purchased the centre court lease from Pete Sampras, any one of the Williams', Clijsters, Henin, Sharapova, assorted Russians, Davenport, Mauresmo could win. Throw in youngsters Mirza, Ivanovic, Vaidisova, and old hand Hingis and they have more storylines than David Copperfield could conjure up.

Of course, we can go on about who hits the ball harder and which tour is better dressed and who gets the most viewers, though in truth it is all cyclic, famines on one tour turning to feasts in another generation as great players arrive and leave and golden ages come and go. The women's tour now alive with variety once leant heavily on the singular shoulders of Graf; such a spare time may visit again.

Sex in the end really does not matter. The fact is that Wimbledon is fundamentally a tennis experience, not a men's tennis or women's tennis experience. We go to watch fine players, irrespective of whether they wear shorts or skirts.

The history, and glory, and appeal, of Wimbledon, too, is not built only on the keen feet and stylish feats of its male champions, but on the powerful grace of its women.

Wimbledon is Laver but also Margaret Court, Borg-McEnroe head to head but also Evert against Navratilova, Sampras in full cry and Graf let loose. To pay women less is to detract from their contribution to a great tournament.