US Open: Equal Pay but NOT Equal Work

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

The following line of thinking isn't going to win me any popularity contests, and I can hardly believe I must preface these remarks by defending my stance as a feminist. But I will quickly state that, of course, I am a feminist. Women belong in every walk of life they choose, and they most certainly deserve equal pay for equal work. All this pussy-footing around to address the equal prize money at the Grand Slams of tennis.

If we go back to Billie Jean King's battleground of the early 70's, her historic match against Bobby Riggs in the Astrodome, her fight to put women on the professional stage as paid athlete entertainers, I was right there cheering her on. Chris Evert's gritty march toward a Wimbledon title was every bit as compelling to watch as Bjorn Borg's and I was ready with my vote to pay her equally for her efforts and her inspiration.

Well, it took 30 years for Billie Jean to achieve her vision. Just last year, Venus Williams was still grousing at Wimbledon about the unjust disparity in prize money between the men and the women and, sure enough, this year, 2007, the battle of the sexes at the All England Lawn and Tennis Club was over. Equal pay for equal work has now been instituted at all of tennis' four Grand Slam events.

Here, at the late summer US Open in New York, equal prize money has been the standard for several years. But as the tournament winds down every year here, I can't help but revisit the issue. It's not a question of talent. The women heading toward the semi-finals tomorrow, Justine Henin and Venus Williams, are brilliantly talented. Even John McEnroe said this week that Henin's superb ball-striking skills and quickness around the court put her in a Roger Federer-category of tennis superiority. The issue isn't the capacity to entertain. If a tennis match is equal and hard-fought, fans don't care whether the players are men or women.

But the issue at hand here is equal pay for equal WORK. The work concept incorporates energy output and stamina, and until the women play three-out-of-five sets, as do the men, instead of two-out-of-three, I simply don't see them as logging equal work on the court.

In the second round, a few days ago, Novak Djokovic beat Radek Stepanek in a grueling, five-set thriller that took 4 hours, 44 minutes--the longest Open match since 1979. Djokovic's legs were riddled with cramps the last three games. He grimaced and tightened in spasms as he struggled to the base line to will himself through that last twenty minutes. Compare that to last night's dramatic match between Venus Williams and Jelena Jankovic. Williams and Jankovic fought hard and displayed awesome athleticism for two and a half hours, a very long women's match. They played championship tennis, in both form and spirit, and the match actually meant more than the Djokovic/Stepanek duel as it put Williams into the semi-finals of the tournament. But, because the women don't play three-out-of-five sets, they just don't reach that state of exhaustion where their endurance, both mental and physical, is stretched to its limits. Throughout the tournament, many of the men's matches go the full five-set distance. They slump in the courtside chairs at the end of four-plus hours in states of physical fatigue and emotional collapse. We admire their sheer tenacity. No matter how good a women's match is, it never, ever goes long enough for us to observe their endurance, to witness their desire tested over the course of a long battle.

Quickness and shot-making and finesse and power and strategy...and personality and sportsmanship...the top women excel in spades in all these facets on the tennis court. But in the Grand Slams they simply don't work as hard as the men. If they're being paid for equal work, they need to play three-out-of-five sets. I can't for the life of me understand what's taking so long to make that happen.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.

Photos by: Jonathan Fickies/



Diana Nyad