Equal pay for equal work has long been considered an international human right. 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the US Equal Pay Act which states that “employers may not pay unequal wages to men and women who perform jobs that require substantially equal skill, effort and responsibility, and that are performed under similar working conditions within the same establishment.” Despite this law and others since, women in the American workforce earn only 77% on average of the earnings of men, so that it is rare to discover a situation where women are paid more than men for equal work.
Tennis professional tour events utilize a best of three sets format for both men and women for all tournaments except for the four “Grand Slam” major events (Wimbledon, the Australian, US and French Open championships). In these “majors”, the women play best of 3 sets as they always do, while the men play best of 5 sets. The lengthier format for men was once used for many other tournaments, but as most tournaments changed from grass to hard courts, the shorter format was adopted almost everywhere. Traditionalists managed to keep the format unchanged from amateur days for the majors and for Davis Cup play.
All of the grand slam tournaments have paid the men’s and women’s champions equal prize money since 2007. While few players dare to publicly disparage the equal pay, many believe it is unfair to the men not to be paid more, since they are playing more sets on the court. Furthermore, Wimbledon charges considerably more for tickets to the gentlemen’s final than for the ladies’ final, and it is argued that this reflects their relative appeal and should affect the prize money paid out to each gender.
The primary argument in favor of continuing best of 5 set matches at the majors is that the longer format is a bigger test of mental and physical endurance which more often allows the better players to prevail. Unfortunately the evidence does not support this theory. Best of 3 sets format was instituted for doubles at every tour event for the past several years. It was generally expected that the shorter formats would disadvantage the top teams, but there turned out to be no effect at all. The best players before the format change continued to top the rankings.
Diogenes believes the equal pay argument is a canard. Rather than considering paying women less, the question of pay should be re-framed as to what is best for tennis, and for the fans whose ticket purchases and TV viewership support the game? Clearly, what needs to be done is to amend men’s competitions in all events to best of three sets.
Almost nobody ever plays best of 5 set matches. 70% of all play in the US is on public courts where someone is usually waiting to take over your court after only an hour of play. Each set on the pro tour is far more grueling, and the players wear out with best of 5 sets matches. Almost every player who manages to win a long 5 set match at the majors goes on to lose in the next round to a fresher opponent.
The fan experience would also be enhanced by shortening matches. Except for die-hard fans, who wants to spend four or five hours watching long five set matches? For many viewers, a decisive third set climax two hours in would be just great.
A serendipitous byproduct of shortening the men’s format in the majors would be an increased incentive for the top players to participate in doubles at the slams. At other longer events where players do not have singles matches every day such as at Miami and Indian Wells, the top singles players also play doubles to the delight of the fans. Few do so in the slams because they fear the longer format.
Tennis is one of the only sports followed and played by both men and women, together and separately. The ATP Tour needs to adopt the best of 3 sets format for all events, including the majors. It would be a boon for players and the fans, and it’s the right thing to do to signal the sport’s commitment to support and practice equal pay for equal work.