History Is Why We Respect Women's Tennis

Illustration for article titled History Is Why We Respect Women's Tennis

Quartz has posited an interesting, if incomplete, theory: money is why we pay attention to women's tennis, and why you should care about women's tennis. Actually, history is why we pay attention to women's tennis, and why you do care about women's tennis.

"If you care about equal pay for women, tennis is the sport for you," heads Quartz's piece, which charts the similarity between the incomes of female and male tennis players and how each side of the sport receives basically equal attention from fans and the media.


"Much of the relative equality is due to the largest tournaments in tennis paying the same winnings to men and women, and treating both equally," writes Nikhil Sonnad. "Women have participated in Wimbledon since 1880, and yet for years, London's stodgy Wimbledon resisted this policy—implemented long ago by the US Open and Australian Open. It too came around in 2007."

While Sonnad is right that the amount of money that goes into women's tennis is indicative of how much respect it gets now, the money didn't come first. Women's tennis is respected because it didn't start off as far behind in popularity as other women's sports did. Though tennis originated in its very early days as a men's sport, once adopted by wealthy people as a hobby, it was picked up by both women and men in the aristocracy. So our modern understanding of tennis has always included women in some form (probably largely because it's an individual sport and it was – at least in its early stages – somewhat ladylike).

When Billie Jean King advocated for female tennis players to receive the same prize money as male tennis players, she was able to do so because women had already been playing the sport for decades before her. This is not to say that there's not plenty of sexism in women's tennis, and that King and her peers didn't force huge change in tennis, only to acknowledge that women could demand higher wages in tennis because there was already a growing demand for their talent.


We see the biggest equality gaps in sports where there's no historical precedent for women to play – or in which the historical precedent is very recent. Football is perhaps the best example of this, but numerous other sports have had difficulty incorporating women into their legacies on a national level simply because attempts started so late. Sonnad is right in arguing that there's "a virtuous circle that begins when men and women play side-by-side in a single tournament," but the real reason women in tennis are so far ahead of women in other sports is because they started out with an advantage. Despite this simplification, his bottom line is still correct: you should definitely watch tennis.

Images via Central Press/Getty

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I just want to plug Lindsay Gibbs's recent article A Handy Guide to Keeping Sexism Out of Women's Tennis Coverage. She does a great job of demolishing many of the most common silly arguments against the women's game.