Gaby Dabrowski is the sixth best doubles player in women’s professional tennis. She was the Australian and French mixed doubles champion and reached the women’s doubles final at Wimbledon in 2019. She has won 11 career WTA titles and competed for Canada at the Rio Olympics in 2016.
But Dabrowski has no endorsement deals other than the free equipment she receives from racquet manufacturer Yonex. She said she couldn’t afford a full-time trainer, trainer or physio. She buys her tennis apparel online from sustainable businesses and is grateful to the Women’s Tennis Association for a mental wellness program that allows her to access tour-sponsored psychologists.
“Doubles specialists, even in regular pre-pandemic times, earn about 10% of what singles players earn,” said Dabrowski, who relies on on-site training at home and at occasional tournaments. . “Fortunately, I am quite thrifty. My dad taught me how to budget at a very young age, and I don’t live an extravagant lifestyle.
Over his 11-year career, 30-year-old Dabrowski has earned nearly $3.5 million. At the recent Madrid tournament, which she won with partner Giuliana Olmos, Dabrowski won $198,133. The following week, she and Olmos made it to the final of the Italian Open and won $33,815 each. But with the cost of travel, hotels, food, clothing and training, Dabrowski says she barely comes out on top.
“The pandemic has made it a lot more difficult,” said Dabrowski, who sits on the WTA Players Council and was instrumental in the reallocation of prize money in which players at the top of the game receive a smaller share for having won a tournament, and players who lose in the first round, those who struggle or try to break through, receive a higher percentage.
“If we’ve learned anything it’s that we have to be careful with those lower ranked players so that they never say they have to give up because they can’t make a living playing tennis,” Dabrowski said. “We have to protect and support the game for them.”
Tennis has always been the most lucrative of all women’s professional sports. In 1970, Gladys Heldman, the publisher of World Tennis magazine, persuaded Philip Morris brand Virginia Slims to donate $7,500 to sponsor the first women’s professional tournament in Houston.
Heldman then persuaded Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals and seven other young women to sign $1 contracts to play professional tennis. The so-called Original Nine players haven’t collectively earned as much in their career as Ashleigh Barty won for winning the singles title at the 2019 Shiseido WTA Finals in Shenzhen, China. The $4.42 million Barty took home that day is more than double the $1,966,487 King earned in his 31-year career, which included 39 major championships in singles, doubles and mixed doubles.
That, of course, doesn’t compare to the $94,518,971 that Serena Williams, the sport’s top earner, has amassed. It more than doubled that figure in endorsements. Naomi Osaka, who has played just nine WTA tournaments in the past year, tops Forbes’ list of highest-paid female athletes for 2022, generating some $58 million from more than 20 corporate sponsors. She ranks just behind LeBron James, Roger Federer and Tiger Woods, but ahead of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Tom Brady. Every year since 1990, when Forbes started listing the highest paid female athletes, the leader has been a tennis player.
“Tennis has always led the way because we’re a global sport,” said King, who in 1971 became the first female athlete to win $100,000 in prize money. “In 1970, we literally had to kill ourselves to get awards and bring attention to women’s tennis,” King said. “Even now we have to work to be No. 1. And the way we do that is by realizing that we are artists and there for our audience.”
Over the past 52 years, the Women’s Tour has had nine major sponsors, including Colgate, Avon and Toyota. After 12 years without a title sponsor, the WTA recently teamed up with Hologic, a women’s diagnostic and medical imaging company, which has pledged millions of dollars in a multi-year deal.
Women’s tennis prize money peaked at $179 million in 2019, shortly before the tour was halted for four months due to the pandemic. The WTA’s overall prize money is now $157 million for 2022.
“The past two years have been very difficult for the WTA, our members and for many businesses around the world,” Steve Simon, the organization’s chief executive, wrote in an email. “We are proud that our tournaments and our players have done what was necessary to operate during this time.”
For Simon, one of the big challenges has been the loss of revenue from Southeast Asia. In 2019, the tour struck a $14 million deal with Japanese skincare company Shiseido to sponsor the WTA Finals in China. When Barty won the tournament, she won the biggest prize ever in the sport, for men or women.
A year later, with the pandemic raging in China, that deal was dissolved. Then, when Chinese player Peng Shuai suddenly disappeared after claiming she had been sexually abused by a high-ranking member of the Chinese government, Simon announced he was canceling all WTA events in China for that year. Last season’s year-end finals were moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, but the money on offer was about a third of what it had been in Shenzhen.
Another issue facing tennis is the rising profile of women’s team sports, particularly soccer and the Women’s National Basketball Association. About two weeks ago, the United States women’s national soccer team reached a collective bargaining agreement with the United States Soccer Federation in which men’s and women’s teams will receive equal pay for equal work.
“Equality in team sports is essential, especially in terms of equality of prize money,” said King’s business partner Ilana Kloss. “But women still have a long way to go. Forty percent of athletes are women and they receive only 4% of media coverage. Many of these big tennis tournaments are owned by conglomerates and investment groups. And these companies now have women at the top who realize that women’s sports are good for business. It’s not just an old boys club anymore. We learn that the tide now affects all boats.
In tennis, women still lag far behind men when it comes to financial compensation in most tournaments except for major tournaments. At Wimbledon and the Australian, French and US Opens, the prize money has been equal since 2007. At this year’s French Open, the winner of the men’s and women’s singles will pocket €2.2 million, that’s nearly $2.4 million. Joint tours to Indian Wells, CA, and Miami also offer equal pricing. But this is not true everywhere.
On May 15, World No. 1 Iga Swiatek won the Italian Open and took home €322,280. A few hours later, Novak Djokovic beat Stefanos Tsitsipas for the men’s championship and took home €836,355. Tsitsipas, second, earned more than €100,000 more than Swiatek.
“Does that sound right to you?” asked Pam Shriver, who won 79 women’s doubles titles with Martina Navratilova. Shriver suggested that the only way for female players to get equal pay in Italy is for female entrepreneurs like King, Serena and Venus Williams, Navratilova and Chris Evert to step in and buy the tournament.
“We’ve learned that not all joint events are created equal,” Shriver said. “In some tournaments, it’s cultural not to pay women so much. But in tennis, the cake keeps getting bigger. Now we just have to take a stand and make sure it’s equal.”
And then there’s Tsitsipas, who earlier this spring broached the subject by asking an old tennis question: Should women receive the same prize money as men when they play two out of three sets at tournaments? majors and men play three out of five? The women argue that it’s about entertainment value and ticket sales, not just time spent on the pitch.
“I don’t want to be controversial or anything,” Tsitsipas said. “There’s the subject of women getting equal pay for playing best-of-three. There’s a lot of scientists and statisticians. I’ve been told that women have better stamina than men. Maybe ‘they can play best of five.