Why is there only room at the top for one women’s sport?
Iga Swiatek claimed her second French Open title on Saturday, extending her winning streak to 35 games by beating Coco Gauff, 6-1, 6-3.
In Sunday’s men’s final, Rafael Nadal is in the hunt for his 14th French Open singles title against No. 8 seed Casper Ruud, the first Norwegian to reach a Grand Prix singles final. Slam.
In the end, both matches will have attracted massive and nearly equal public attention, but women’s tennis has yet to engage in a fight for a level playing field. We’ve seen this play out again on red clay at Roland Garros over the past two weeks (more on that later). Yet professional tennis sets the standard for popularity and viability in women’s sports – and it’s not even close.
Thanks to the fight for fairness led by legends like Althea Gibson, the Williams sisters and Billie Jean King, the women’s professional game unfolds steadily in front of enthusiastic and packed audiences. Their finals often attract more viewers than the men at the bigger events. Off the pitch, the best players are social media approval and gold. At all four Grand Slams, they have won equal prize money since 2007. Gauff or Swiatek will walk away with $2.4 million.
Every major tennis championship offers a chance to wonder why other women’s sports don’t share the same level of success.
Professional golf comes closest, but doesn’t have it. Neither does high-profile football.
Despite recent advances ensuring equal pay rates for the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams, women’s soccer remains mostly in the shadows outside of the World Cup.
Interest in sports like gymnastics, figure skating, swimming, and skiing grows when the Olympics come around, but when the Games end, it always fades.
The popularity of women’s basketball is on the rise, especially at the college level. In the professional ranks, however, the fight for respect seems set to drag on for years. Last week, when I wrote a column about a former star on a top college team struggling to fulfill his dream of hanging on to a WNBA team, the responses were typical.
Women’s basketball, said one reader, “is just a big yawn.” An old acquaintance called to give a standard line: “Women can’t dive, so I’m not watching.”
The idea that female athletes have to perform exactly like men to be taken seriously makes no sense. We should be able to appreciate and appreciate both on their own merits. Tennis is the best example. Overall, the best female tennis players don’t hit with the power and spin of the best professional males.
And yet, the women’s circuit largely holds up.
Why can’t other sports?
There are no simple answers explaining the pre-eminence of tennis.
The fact that men and women share the glory at Wimbledon and the French, US and Australian Opens certainly adds to the reputation and brilliance of the women’s game.
We still live in a world where strong, powerful women who break the mold struggle to be accepted. Consider the WNBA, filled with outspoken, mostly black women who have shown a common willingness to take aggressive stands for LGBTQ rights, reproductive freedom and politics. How do you think this is happening in many corners of America and the world?
Yes, tennis often has a few outspoken players ready to publicly oppose power. In the modern age of the game, Venus and Serena Williams have done it simply by showing up and dominating. Naomi Osaka broke the rules with her face masks to protest for black rights. But the vast majority of women in tennis carry their significant power quietly, behind the scenes and in a way that doesn’t upset the male-dominated status quo too much. To think that this is not a factor in the popularity of the pro tour would be foolish.
Men, of course, formed their greatest leagues decades before the age of female empowerment. Major League Baseball’s lineage dates back to 1876. The NFL to 1920. The NWSL, for comparison, formed in 2012, and the WNBA in 1997. For decades, men sucked all the oxygen and the stars of the biggest professional sports have become revered. Icons. Television and radio have gilded their game: the miraculous capture of center field by Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series; Johnny Unitas leading the Baltimore Colts past the Giants in the NFL Championship in 1958; Boston Celtics announcer Johnny Most shouting, “Havlicek stole the ball!” in 1965.
Thanks to the enduring power of radio and television, these moments of greatness and countless others are forever etched in memory. They did not include women.
Time changes everything, however slowly.
The 1973 “battle of the sexes” – King versus chauvinistic windmill Bobby Riggs – set a new and lasting tone. Their match drew 90 million viewers, making it one of the most-watched sports spectacles then or since, and helped propel women’s tennis to once unthinkable heights.
But the fight does not stop. At Roland Garros for the past two weeks, organizers have held nightly sessions that featured what they billed as the match of the day. Ten have been played. Only one was a women’s match.
Talk about complicated. The schedule controversy erupted when, of all people, Amélie Mauresmo, the tournament director and former top player, said she had drawn up the night schedule because the men’s game had more “d ‘attractiveness’ than the women’s game right now.
So that means Swiatek, the top seed and former Paris champion with a monumental winning streak, wasn’t appealing enough. Gauff was not attractive enough. Ditto for the quadruple major champion Osaka, or the young and charismatic finalists of the US Open last year, Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu. None took the clay overnight.
The more things change, the more things stay the same.
The players and powerhouses of women’s tennis must always be vigilant, but they have a startling advantage: their controversies, their fights to be taken seriously and their championship matches take place on the biggest stages before the eyes of the world.
But why should women’s tennis stand alone?