Tennis is unique to many of the other major sports in the world because it offers fans a chance to watch an individual athlete perform at the peak of their sport in a 1 on 1 fashion. The game is fast, powerful, and very intriguing to watch, especially in person. Rather than feeling connected to a team, fans feel connected to players on what seems like a personal level. At most tournaments, the women’s players draw just as many if not more fans than the men’s players. While it is a beautiful game with amazing fans, until recently there has been a disparity in the prize money awarded in for champions in the major tennis tournaments. Because of tradition steeped in sexism, women champions at major open tennis tournaments were only paid a fraction of what the men were. Billie Jean King won the first Wimbledon open tournament in 1968 and was paid £750. The male winner was paid £2000. Billie Jean King was vocal about the disparity but without support from others, she was fighting an uphill battle. The problem persisted for decades, until a new champion of the cause of equality could take on the issue.
Venus Williams was not the typical tennis player. While tennis is a relatively affluent sport, Venus and her family grew up in Compton, California in South Central Los Angeles. She was relatively self taught and had her father for a coach rather than an expensive professional coach at a tennis academy. She stormed onto the professional tennis scene as a teenager and never really looked back. Her dominance on the court was met with millions of dollars in endorsement deals off the court as well. She was a well-known face in the sports world and also in popular culture.
She knew that the cause for equal pay would stall unless she acted and in the midst of her quest for another championship, she took the time to go to the Grand Slam Committee meeting to address the issue of equal pay for Grand Slam champions regardless of gender. The meeting took place the day before the Wimbledon final in 2005. Usually that day is reserved by players for preparation and relaxation, before the stress of the match. However she took the time to go because the issue was so important to her. In the meeting she spoke from the heart. According to Larry Scott, the Chairman and CEO of the Women’s tennis association, this is what she said: “Everyone close your eyes. No peeking! Now I’d like you to imagine being a young girl, a young girl growing up that’s got dreams and aspirations for being an athlete or a scientist or an artist or president of the united states, and then one day someone tells you can’t be the same and you can’t reach that same level as a boy that’s worked equally as hard as you, that’s done as well as you, that there’s a limit – there’s a limit to what you can achieve because of your gender.”
The speech made people on the committee think, but not commit to any real action. They kept putting off raising the pay of women. This raised the resolve of Venus Williams and other tennis players to make sure that Wimbledon would change their pay structure and award equal prize money. Venus wrote an op-ed article in the London times that helped propel the issue into the public forum in England. Some of the excerpts from the article were especially poignant.
“With power and status comes responsibility. Well, Wimbledon has power and status.
How can it be that Wimbledon finds itself on the wrong side of history? How can the words Wimbledon and inequality be allowed to coexist?…I believe that athletes -especially female athletes in the world’s leading sport for women -should serve as role models. The message I like to convey to women and girls across the globe is that there is no glass ceiling. I intend to keep doing everything I can until Billie Jean’s original dream of equality is made real. It’s a shame that the name of the greatest tournament in tennis, an event that should be a positive symbol for the sport, is tarnished.”
They also found new allies in their cause including female members of British parliament. Janet Anderson brought the topic up on a day when tony Blair, the Prime minister of England was in parliament to answer questions. He quickly answered that he fully supported the equal pay of women at Wimbledon. After that the committee felt the full public and political pressure to right the wrong that had been perpetuated for so many years. Venus won the 2007 Wimbledon championship, and finally felt the full benefit of all of her hard work. Equal Prize Money was awarded for the first time that year. While much of the rest of the world lags behind in equal pay for women, Venus Williams helped right that wrong in Women’s Professional Tennis.
Williams, Venus. “Wimbledon Has Sent Me a Message: I’m Only a Second-class Champion.” The Times (London), June 26, 2006.
Venus Vs. Directed by Ava DuVernay. Featuring Venus Williams.