Inevitably as soon as Ash Barty had finished posing for photos with a trophy that crowned off a quite remarkable year for the extremely likable Aussie, the focus shifted to the size of the cheque that she’d received. In case you aren’t aware, she pocketed a cool $4.42m, a sum that dwarfs any to have been previously awarded in a professional tennis tournament, male or female.
Almost immediately the WTA cheerleaders that masquerade as journalists hailed this as a crowing moment for women’s tennis and women’s sport. It’s a grandiose claim and deserves scrutiny, but unsurprisingly the makers of said comments don’t want to expand on their thoughts. Probably because they don’t hold up.
What makes me say this? Well let’s travel back in time. Not decades, or even years, but to January of this year, in which Serena pleaded with her male counterparts to back her desire for equal pay at all events. At this point it’s worth clarifying that equal pay does exist at the Majors and at the top level combined events; however for the majority of the tennis season men and women are in different cities all over the world competing in the smaller, less prestigious tournaments and that’s where the disparity exists and presumably what Serena was referring too.
It must be noted it was a strange request from Serena at the time and rather illogical. The ATP and the WTA operate as separate businesses that sign their own TV deals; sponsorships, media agreements, they operate in different countries and cities and on and on it goes. It’s simply not possible under the current tennis structure, which she surely knows.
But Serena had an argument, to some degree; she was just asking the wrong people. The question should be directed at the WTA management as to why the women’s game is lagging behind. The numbers below make it clear just how bad the problem is:
Of the 55 tournaments the WTA tour offer, 32 are WTA International events (the lowest level offered). Of those, 30 have prize pools at the $250,000 mark.
In contrast the men’s game has 39 out of 62 of its events at its lowest level (ATP 250), however these prize pools have a significantly higher starting point at $589,680.
Consequently a male who wins an ATP 250 earns a minimum of $90,990 and the runner up earns $49,205. A female WTA International winner earns $43,000. You can begin to see the difference.
Knowing all this, how much should we now be celebrating the fact that Barty picked up a cheque more than 100x the value of a standard WTA International win? The cheque itself represented a massive increase of the previous years winner, Elina Svitolina, who took home $2,360,000.
Is this something we should be celebrating? Possibly. But what long term effects and benefits it has, if any, are up for debate. What the tournament did offer was a chance for the WTA to brag about securing the deal and getting one over the men. So there’s that I guess?
Ultimately for me I go back to this idea of it being, “what a moment for women’s tennis” as one WTA employee put it. Explain to us all what changes this will bring, what benefits will occur and how it’ll change the sport. Because as I sit here I just see a tournament making the richest even richer and I cannot fathom how it means more money finds its way further down the ladder to the players who desperately need it. I would be delighted to be pray, but I think these sensationalist comments will prove to be just that.
Finally I feel it’s worth mentioning that I’ve written previously about the inequality in tennis at the lower levels between the tours and given what I’ve written so far it’s worth just making people aware that as of next year the ATP have increased the travel grant they’ll be giving to players ranked 151-400 to $4,000 and doubles players will get $2,000. Whilst the ITF are generally responsible for tournaments that most female players in the 151-400 bracket will play, it’s just another example of how much better the ATP does for its players (there’s still more to do) when compared to the WTA/ITF.
What about the tournament itself?
In a lot of ways the size of the prize won by Barty has helped to mask a tournament that was nothing short of a disaster. Injuries can happen at any time, but when you combine players who are tired at the end of a long season and a painfully slow hard court you’re asking for trouble.
The venue wasn’t able to sell out and the atmosphere was dead. The WTA in their infinite wisdom turned down bids from Manchester and Prague, two places that would have sold out every session, in order to chase the money in a market that has never really taken to tennis. The consequence is that you had elite female tennis players playing in an environment and atmosphere which did not give them the stage or platform their talents deserve.
Luckily the WTA have committed themselves to spending the next 9 years trying to address that in Shenzhen. I wish them luck, because it’ll be one hell of a battle to achieve that.
In conclusion, well done to Ash Barty, but let’s not get carried away by the size of her winnings. It distract from the very real issues the WTA faces both in Shenzhen and the tour as a whole.