Column: Women need five-sets tennis to win equality battle


By John Leicester - AP Sports Columnist



Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, talks to reporters at the Miami Open tennis tournament in Key Biscayne, Fla., Wednesday, March 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)


Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, talks to reporters at the Miami Open tennis tournament in Key Biscayne, Fla., Wednesday, March 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)


PARIS — After a bruising start, this ultimately morphed into a points-scoring week for women’s tennis.

Quick recap: Novak Djokovic put both feet in his mouth by suggesting that male players should be paid more, and by condescendingly praising women athletes for overcoming “a lot of different things that we don’t have to go through. You know, the hormones and different stuff.”

Sigh. Hardly the sort of forward-looking, 21st century leadership one wants to hear from the top-ranked man. Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, and a few days of reflection subsequently helped to put him right. Djokovic backpedaled with a qualified apology.

Then, Raymond Moore resigned as the Indian Wells tournament director, falling on his sword for suggesting that women players should fall to their knees in thanks for male counterparts who have “carried this sport.”

Sexism coming back to bite men who should know better. Count this week as a 6-4, 6-4 victory for women players in their unfinished battle for equality.

And it will remain unfinished just so long as tennis continues to make women play a different game from the men.

Not having women play best-of-five-set matches, like men, at major tournaments is core to tennis’ equality problem, because it hardwires gender inequality into the sport.

At the Olympic Games, the equivalent would be 80-meter sprints for women, while men run 100. Or 40-meter pools. Or, in football, 60-minute matches.

Truncated Grand Slam tennis for women perpetuates offensive myths about weaker and superior sexes. It suggests that women aren’t physically and mentally strong enough to play five sets, even though that is patently false. It fuels noxious arguments that women don’t deserve the equal prize money at majors they fought long and successfully for, because they play fewer sets than men to win it.

In short, it is plain wrong.

There will always be those who feel that men’s matches offer better value for money because they are more likely to run longer. That ignores the fact that a hard-fought 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 — to cite just the example of Serena Williams against Victoria Azarenka in the French Open third round last year — can be more memorable than a men’s 6-3, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2 — the score of Rafael Nadal’s fourth-round win at Roland Garros against Jack Sock.

The quantity-trumps-quality mindset is impossible for women to beat completely when they are not playing the same format as men, and not being allowed to sell the same product. Best-of-five tennis can be more dramatic, because the additional length can encourage more momentum swings, comebacks, collapses, and epic marathons. Women are being deprived of that stage.

Cheaper tickets for best-of-three major finals than for best-of-five also send the message, even before women have played, that they’re not worth forking out for like the men. At the French Open in June, hospitality packages for the men’s final will cost twice as much as for the women’s final. Organizers say that is because there is greater public demand to watch the men. Djokovic followed similar logic in arguing that male players should get more money.

“We have much more spectators,” he said.

But popularity is cyclical. As the golden era of Roger vs. Rafa comes to an end, Djokovic cannot be sure that audiences won’t shift from the men’s game. It wasn’t that long ago that Steffi Graf vs. Martina Navratilova was a more intriguing rivalry than Djokovic against Andy Murray is now.

Forget the argument that best-of-five matches for women couldn’t be shoehorned into cramped Grand Slam schedules. That assumes that men can’t make space. Best-of-three for both men and women in early rounds of the showcase tournaments, followed by best-of-five for both in the later stages might work.

At least it would be equal.

Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, talks to reporters at the Miami Open tennis tournament in Key Biscayne, Fla., Wednesday, March 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
http://wnewsj.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/web1_109425605-53d4195a36534ac78d0e8fc562af16cf.jpgNovak Djokovic, of Serbia, talks to reporters at the Miami Open tennis tournament in Key Biscayne, Fla., Wednesday, March 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, talks to reporters at the Miami Open tennis tournament in Key Biscayne, Fla., Wednesday, March 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
http://wnewsj.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/web1_109425605-53521f69f8554aa18f5b4ba51255df2b.jpgNovak Djokovic, of Serbia, talks to reporters at the Miami Open tennis tournament in Key Biscayne, Fla., Wednesday, March 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

By John Leicester

AP Sports Columnist

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicesterap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicesterap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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