Ben Rothenberg | Racquet and Longreads | July 2019 | 13 minutes (3,300 words)

This story is produced in partnership with Racquet magazine and appears in issue no. 10.

Even though its grass surface is alive, and newly planted blooms of campanula, foxglove, and petunia blossom on the grounds, there is something distinctly ancient about Wimbledon, like a fossil that was somehow reanimated.

Wimbledon is keeping up with the times in many ways, technologically, using Hawk-Eye review systems on an increasing number of courts and installing tiny cameras inside the nets for a close-up glimpse at players on Centre Court. The tournament’s lushly designed mobile app and website are the most reliable and innovative in the sport, without ever feeling even remotely flashy or garish.

Still, nowhere in tennis is the past as present as Wimbledon. Matches are played on meticulously manicured grass courts, a throwback to when the sport was known as “lawn tennis.” Players are required to wear white, a rule that the All England Club has made stricter in recent years.

But perhaps most telling of Wimbledon’s archaism is that this year, for the first time, the Championships will pay the same total amount of prize money to men and women.

Yes, this year, 2019; yes, for the first time.

In past years there had been 32 more spots for men to enter Wimbledon’s qualifying event (128) than there were for women (96). This asymmetry may feel minor, but the discrepancy in job opportunities left a noticeable pay gap lingering; in 2018 it was £230,000 (about U.S. $300,000). A similar gap was also closed this year by the Australian Open, but still lingers at the French Open.

There was never a clear rationale for this stubborn remnant inequality, but nor was it anachronistic, At Wimbledon especially, women have often been waiting for equal treatment. And in many ways, culturally, they still are.

“Unfortunately the world is a place where there’s always inequality everywhere,” Venus Williams told me during an interview for The New York Times at Wimbledon several years ago, smiling ruefully. “There’s always someone looking to dominate someone else. I’m not saying that that’s the case in tennis, but in general. So it’s not easy, especially when it comes to women, or minorities, in any country. It’s going to be a little bit more challenging. Hopefully at some point it will just turn around, and we’ll all just want to be equal. But I think we’ve got a long way to go before that happens.”

How far there still is to go at Wimbledon can be debated, but one thing’s for sure: It’s been a long time coming.

* * *

Let’s start with the easily quantifiable financial side of the equation. Women—“ladies,” in Wimbledon’s continuing parlance—were first included at Wimbledon in 1884, seven years after the All England Club began hosting a men’s tournament. In that first year of women being included, the “gentlemen’s” singles took place during the first week of the tournament, followed by the ladies’ singles and the gentlemen’s doubles in the second week. (Ladies’ doubles would not be introduced for another 29 years, in 1913.) The prizes were feminine: a silver flower basket for the champion—who was Maud Watson, a 19-year-old Englishwoman—and a silver and glass hand mirror and a silver-backed brush for the runner-up. These prizes for the top two finishers were valued, respectively, at 20 guineas and 10 guineas (guineas being antiquated currency that was often used in valuations to make aristocratic items sound more illustrious). The men’s prizes, meanwhile, were valued at 30 guineas and 15 guineas.

There was little quibbling early on, however. Even as women’s suffrage swept the globe—reaching Britain in 1928—women in the amateur days of tennis didn’t openly gripe about being treated as lesser than the men. In fact, Wimbledon was celebrated by female players as being one of the most respectful and most accommodating clubs to them, especially compared with others where they were treated as relative outcasts compared with male players, and often given substandard amenities.

“Although the Wimbledon establishment was behind the times on some issues (women’s clothing, for instance), the officials never failed to treat women with respect,” Billie Jean King wrote about the early 1950s in A Long Way Baby, a history of women’s tennis. “The All England Club provided them with many courtesies: chauffeuring, lunches, a masseuse, and a comfortable dressing room. Furthermore, Wimbledon honored the women with a fair number of appearances on the Centre and Number 1 courts. No other tournament in the world treated women so well.”

We think the time is right to demand equal money. We have to go in now and stake our claim. It is no good chipping away year after year getting small increases.

Those warm feelings of welcome soured, ironically, when the sport became more inclusive. Wimbledon was the first Grand Slam event to allow professionals to compete for prize money in 1968; an unintended consequence was that the quantification of its respective valuation and appreciation for male and female players was apparent. That first year, the men’s champion was awarded £2,000; the ladies’ champion received only £750.

As women’s tennis gained a foothold as a professional sport in the mid-1970s under the energetic leadership of Billie Jean King and the marketing muscle of Philip Morris, women reached equality in prize money at the US Open in 1973, a symbolic victory that was consolidated soon after by King’s win in the “Battle of the Sexes” exhibition match.

It looked like parity was soon to come across the pond as well. Wimbledon was steadily closing the gap in its prizes. After starting out as 37.5 percent in 1968, the ladies’ champion’s relative earning compared with the men’s narrowed from 60 percent in 1973 to 90 percent in 1977.

Then, however, the progress stalled, and remained stalled for another three decades.

There was talk of a boycott as early as the mid-1970s. In 1976, defending champion Chris Evert, not remembered as a rabble-rouser compared with many of her contemporaries, was particularly outspoken, and said the WTA players for whom she served as president would boycott without equality.

“We really mean it,” Evert told Britain’s Tennis magazine in August 1976. “Apart from Connors, Nastase, Borg and Ashe, there are few attractions on the men’s circuit. Women’s tennis has come on enormously. There are so many attractive new faces and names. We think the time is right to demand equal money. We have to go in now and stake our claim. It is no good chipping away year after year getting small increases. We are confident we will get 90 per cent backing from our members of the Women’s Tennis Association.”

The petition, she said, would be presented to the All England Club the next year. “That will give them plenty of time to find the money,” she said.

The movement was not universally supported within tennis, even by women. Christine Truman, a former leading British player, remarked that “Chris Evert needs to have her bottom spanked…. This is just grasping…pure greed.”

Air Chief Marshal Sir Brian Burnett, then the All England Club’s chairman, said his committee would not “be prepared to give into threats of any kind.”

American tennis players Billie Jean King and Chris Evert chatting before their match in the women’s semifinals at Wimbledon Championships, All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, London, UK, 3rd July 1975. (Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
American tennis players Billie Jean King and Chris Evert chatting before their match in the women’s semifinals at Wimbledon Championships, All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, London, UK, 3rd July 1975. (Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

* * *

Jane Chi, who played on the WTA Tour in the late ’90s, told me of her vivid memories of sitting in on a meeting between players and the Club.

“WTA got all the players together, and we got into a room and all sat there before the All England Lawn Tennis committee, talking about equal prize money,” Chi said. “Very indicative of the time, the men were like, ‘Girls, girls, girls, come on.’ You could tell. And I remember Rennae Stubbs being very articulate, laying out the argument for why women should be getting paid equally to the men at Wimbledon. And then you had this panel of five or six men sitting there, saying, ‘Girls, girls, girls, calm down.’ I came away from that saying, ‘Jeez, we’re still a ways from that.’”

The Club had remained similarly entrenched for generations of subsequent leaders. In 1999, chairman John Curry expressed injury at the women’s “demand” for equality.

“[The women] have every right to request, but to demand it I think is hurtful and damaging to Wimbledon,” he said. “It implies that we treat them unfairly, and that’s not true from the evidence.”

He had evidence, oh yes. The next year, Curry rolled out math to justify paying the women less: “The levels of prize money we offer actually means the women earn approximately 120 to 150 percent more per point,” he said, employing the predictable argument that women play a shorter format than men—not by choice, mind you.

His successor, Tim Phillips, offered his own convoluted math: Because women could play doubles, they were actually overpaid. “Serena [Williams] earned 11 percent more than Lleyton [Hewitt] last year,” he said of the 2002 champions. “She played 27 sets and Lleyton played 23. She made more appearances, which lasted less time, and collected more money. The top 10 women earn 3 percent more than the top 10 men. The men made 609 pounds per game and the women 815 pounds per game. We feel we are not far away in terms of fairness.”

Phillips further suggested that the Americans were the weird ones for paying women equally. “I said last year I didn’t expect to see [equal pay] in the foreseeable future,” he said of Wimbledon. “We consider the US and Australian Opens to be the ones being out of line. There are no other tournaments with equal prize money, and we are not sure there are many other sporting events with equal parity in terms of men and women.”

Indeed, equality seemed to be an American value when it came to tennis (the Australian Open had toggled on and off between equal and unequal pay, ultimately landing on equality for good in 2001). Pam Shriver wrote in a 2002 column that the vote of confidence in the women by the US Open was what had allowed American women’s tennis to become predominant in the years to follow. “In the US in 1973 the depth in women’s tennis was nowhere near what it is today but once you treat people with the respect of equality they will fulfill their end of the obligation. In this day in age it must be a turn-off for girls in Britain to think that they’re going into a sport in which they’re very much in second place.”

Chief executive Chris Gorringe caused particular dismay when he responded to a question about the women demanding equal pay by replying, “Yes, but then we wouldn’t have so much to spend on petunias.”

In 2003, the bra company Berlei chipped in £66,800 to close the gap for the female champion, leading to rounds of positive publicity and easy puns about the company “supporting” women or “padding” their pay. That Berlei could make such a positive PR splash for such a relatively low sum showed, again, just how stingy Wimbledon was being.

After 23 years of the ladies’ champion making roughly 90 percent of her male counterpart, the gap again began to close, but almost imperceptibly. In 2001, it was 92.5 percent; a year later, it was 93 percent; two years later, it was 95 percent. These token gaps were more insulting. There was no longer any economic argument to be made, other than a clear insistence that women needed to remain somehow lesser.

* * *

I’m disappointed for the great legends of the game, such as Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, who have never stopped fighting for equality.

Again, it was an American who led the charge, as King and Evert had earlier. Venus Williams, who broke through for her first Grand Slam title in 2000, penned an editorial for The Times of London that expressed her disappointment in being devalued by the tournament she had dreamed of as a child.

“The decision of the All England Lawn Tennis Club yet again to treat women as lesser players than men—undeserving of the same amount of prize money—has a particular sting,” Venus wrote. “I’m disappointed not for myself but for all of my fellow women players who have struggled so hard to get here and who, just like the men, give their all on the courts of SW19. I’m disappointed for the great legends of the game, such as Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, who have never stopped fighting for equality. And disappointed that the home of tennis is sending a message to women across the world that we are inferior. With power and status comes responsibility. Well, Wimbledon has power and status. The time has come for it to do the right thing by paying men and women the same sums of prize money.”

Venus’ column gained notice in the House of Commons, further increasing the pressure on the tournament. Ultimately, begrudgingly, they relented, and equal pay was awarded in 2007 at Wimbledon, which was the last Grand Slam event to do so.

Equal prize money could have been the end of the story. At Wimbledon, it’s not.

* * *

Because of perceptions of feminine weakness that date back to the start of lawn tennis, when women had to compete while wearing layers of heavy, stiff clothing down to their wrists and ankles, women play a shorter format of singles matches at Grand Slam events than men do. This best-of-three format, though initially assigned to the women because of a perceived inferiority, has proved superior in recent years, as the sport grows more physical and matches often last twice as long as they did in previous eras (it wasn’t until 1973 that a men’s semifinal or final at Wimbledon lasted more than three hours).

Best-of-three matches also have a tighter range of possible lengths, which makes them easier to schedule for television and on a tournament’s order of play. But at Wimbledon, where men’s doubles is also played over a best-of-five format, Wimbledon’s “gentlemen” manspread their matches like an Etonian with elephantiasis, monopolizing time on the main courts.

Because their matches are shorter, women are often forced to defend their equal pay, particularly at Wimbledon, where those matches are made to stand alone on the schedule on both the quarterfinal and semifinal days. In 2016, after both semifinals ended in straight sets, all four semifinalists (Venus, Serena, Angelique Kerber, Elena Vesnina) were asked why they deserved as much pay as men.

What might make sense is for fewer of these unwieldy best-of-five matches to be played on the biggest courts, but the opposite occurs. Most days during the first four rounds of Wimbledon, even after equal pay arrived, there are two gentlemen’s matches and one ladies’ match scheduled on each of Centre Court and No. 1 Court. This scarcity has meant that esteemed Wimbledon champions such as Venus and Serena Williams are routinely relegated to auxiliary courts.

When I first came to Wimbledon in 2008, as a fan, I got to see both Venus and Serena play fourth-round singles matches on the old “graveyard” No. 2 Court. It was a thrill for me to get to see the two eventual finalists with just a grounds pass, but I also realized they deserved a far more vaunted stage.

When I asked Venus Williams about it in an interview years later, she made it clear that any slight was not individual.

“For me it’s not personal,” Venus said. “For me it’s not about what court I play on, personally, at all, for me. It’s a bigger picture thing. I don’t mind where I play. I don’t think there’s any shame in the court number you’re on; it’s just about the equality of women and men on the show courts.”

This inequality in court assignments became the next sticking point for the WTA and its leaders after the prize-money victory. In 2014, seven years after the prize-money battle ended, it seemed as though it had been resolved: In the first week, two women’s matches were assigned to Centre Court repeatedly.

Venus Williams, who still served on the WTA players’ council, had spoken to All England Club organizers about the disparity on the Saturday before the tournament, and saw the scheduling as a sign of a breakthrough, as did other WTA leaders.

“It’s an issue that has been on the WTA’s mind for a number of years,” Venus told me in an interview then. “This year has been a great year in terms of the club really stepping up to the plate and doing something positive, and just continuing the trend of equality that they’ve set for a long time.”

Venus saw it as another step forward in a legacy she was continuing.

“Prize money was important because it really validated the things that Billie Jean King and the Original 9 [did], all the women who made so many sacrifices—it really came full circle,” she told me. “So equal prize money was huge, and then this also I’m sure means a lot to them as well, because it’s just a progression to where we all should be, standing on equal ground.”

By the next year, however, the progress was undone, and men’s matches again dominated the prime slots. In 2016, when five-time champion Venus was relegated to Court 18 for a second-round match, she again expressed her disappointment.

“I think if all players have to play outside, all players should have to play outside,” Venus said. “There shouldn’t be any exceptions or any inequality to it.”

Venus, in subsequent years, has been much quieter and less outspoken, not just at Wimbledon, but everywhere. Perhaps she’s weary, after all this time, of not being heard.

Venus Williams celebrates after winning a point against Greece’s Maria Sakkari during their second round match of the 2016 Wimbledon Championships on June 30, 2016. (GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images)
Venus Williams celebrates after winning a point against Greece’s Maria Sakkari during their second round match of the 2016 Wimbledon Championships on June 30, 2016. (GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images)

* * *

The All England Club sent out a survey to past ticket buyers in early 2018, asking questions including if showing an equal number of gentlemen’s and ladies’ matches on the main courts should be a priority. The results of this poll were not revealed, but that Wimbledon thought equality as a goal was not a given still answered loudly.

There have been positive developments, to be sure: Also in 2018, the Wimbledon digital team pledged to give male and female players an even 50-50 divide on its coverage on social media and other platforms.

But there are still many more breakthroughs to be won. Fred Perry, who stood as the last British male singles champion until Andy Murray, has his own statue on the grounds; the British women who have won Wimbledon singles titles most recently have smaller busts.

The defending gentlemen’s singles champion always plays first on Centre Court on the first day of the tournament. The ladies’ singles champion is given the slot of playing first on the second day, which feels as pointless as going to a grand opening a day later, picking up a scrap of ribbon off the ground, and giving it another snip.

Female finalists at Wimbledon (as well as several other tournaments) carry bouquets of flowers onto the course. In Wimbledon’s white, the ritual takes on an even more bridal feel than usual.

Wimbledon also remains the only Grand Slam tournament where a woman has never served as chair umpire for the men’s singles final; it wasn’t until 1984 that a woman, Georgina Clark, even umpired the women’s final.

Chair umpires also address the male and female players differently, with “Miss Kerber” winning last year’s final over “Mrs. Williams,” reminding everyone throughout the match of their respective marital statuses. These married names persist on the board of champions inside Centre Court, even after the marriages end. To know who won Wimbledon in 1981, for example, you would have to know who was “Mrs. J.M. Lloyd” at that time (hint: It’s the same person listed twice above as “Miss C.M. Evert). The men’s champion was just called “Djokovic,” simply enough.

Djokovic’s win in a five-set semifinal over Nadal, which followed another five-setter, needed to finish the next day, and thus pushed back the start of the ladies’ final from its designated 2 p.m. start time until after whenever the men finished (which wound up being at 10–8 in the fifth set).

Once again, at Wimbledon, the women were left waiting.

* * *

Ben Rothenberg is a freelance tennis writer from Washington, D.C. He contributes to The New York Times and other outlets, and cohosts the No Challenges Remaining tennis podcast.