MATCH POINT: Equal prize money is one thing, but the women’s game is in danger of going backwards

new balance


A stroll past Madison Square Garden the other day was a reminder of less turbulent times for women’s tennis.

Specifically, it brought to mind the awful mess the tour have got themselves into over their year-end championships, the WTA Finals, the traditional showdown involving the leading performers from the season.

There was still no venue announced on Tuesday night for what is supposed to be a flagship event, due to start on October 30, less than two months from now.

Increasingly the planning for this showpiece has come to resemble one of those mystery hotels or holidays booked via an app — you pay a bargain price but the drawback is not knowing which deal you are going to get until the last minute.

World No 1 Iga Swiatek has been among those exasperated by the delays.

World No 1 Iga Swiatek has been exasperated by the delays in the women's tennis schedule

World No 1 Iga Swiatek has been exasperated by the delays in the women’s tennis schedule

'It¿s pretty annoying and unfortunate that we don¿t have a decision yet': Swiatek has expressed her frustration at the WTA Finals not having a venue just two months out from the tournament

‘It’s pretty annoying and unfortunate that we don’t have a decision yet’: Swiatek has expressed her frustration at the WTA Finals not having a venue just two months out from the tournament

‘Obviously we want to know because it is hard to plan,’ she said even before this US Open had begun.

‘For sure, it’s pretty annoying and unfortunate that we don’t have a decision yet.’

You can sympathise with her irritation at this embarrassing state of affairs, in a sport where players often know where they are going a year in advance.

Those investing time and money in the hosting of this year’s Billie Jean King Cup finals have also become deeply frustrated.

The team event’s latest home is Seville, taking place the week after the WTA Finals, and naturally they would like to know in which continent the preceding event is going to take place and how it might impact them.

For 21 years, up until 2000, there was never any doubt as the tournament would reliably be staged at the world-famous Madison Square Garden in New York.

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Having attended on a couple of occasions in its heyday, it is easy to recall that it was quite an event with a proper buzz, sizeable crowds affirming that this was an era when the women’s game had really come of age.

Since departing New York it has flitted around different cities, culminating in a visit last year to Fort Worth where, held at relatively short notice, the crowds were conspicuously poor.

In 2023, the delay in firming up a venue has been even worse and, regardless of issues surrounding the possibility of Saudi Arabia being the host — now unlikely to happen this year, with the Czech Republic the favourite — it is a terrible look.

Until 2000, the tournament was reliably staged at the world-famous Madison Square Garden

Until 2000, the tournament was reliably staged at the world-famous Madison Square Garden

The saga has also undermined the whole promotional theme for the US Open, which has been celebrating the far-sighted decision 50 years ago to award equal prize money to the men and women, driven largely by the efforts of Billie Jean King.

The extraordinarily successful Grand Slam events can quite comfortably afford equal purses and they all fell into line when, in 2007, Wimbledon became the last of the quartet to follow suit.

The elephant in the room is the problem the women’s game runs into when trying to sell itself as a standalone product.

Just one example of that was when the Lawn Tennis Association stepped in a year ago to host the finals of the BJK Cup in Glasgow, at considerable cost to the British game, as there were no other takers. There are mitigating circumstances around this year’s unfolding fiasco over the Finals.

Saudi has emerged as a player with the deepest pockets imaginable, and the lucrative possibilities it presents are one reason why the atmosphere has been febrile in the dozens of meetings taking place between the sport’s fractured governance in New York.

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Arguments for and against going to Saudi have become well-rehearsed and in tennis are further complicated by the kingdom’s desire to hold a Masters-level tournament, which would need to be shoehorned into the existing calendar. Looking at the context of the last few years, the pandemic made life extremely difficult for the WTA, having gone all in on China and moved the season-end event there.

Magic eight: Petra Kvitova, Naomi Osaka, Elina Svitolina, Ashleigh Barty, Simona Halep, Bianca Andreescu, Belinda Bencic and Karolina Pliskova at the 2019 WTA finals in Shenzhen, China

Magic eight: Petra Kvitova, Naomi Osaka, Elina Svitolina, Ashleigh Barty, Simona Halep, Bianca Andreescu, Belinda Bencic and Karolina Pliskova at the 2019 WTA finals in Shenzhen, China

Yet the plain fact remains that the equivalent ATP Finals would not have been subject to the same struggles, given the greater economic attraction the men’s game carries with it.

Fifty years on, the story of equal prize money remains a complex and emotive one and there is still much to do for the hapless leadership successors to King and her fellow pioneers.

‘Petulance in Room 1’

Over the course of a Grand Slam, tempers and patience can be frayed by the demands on everyone at an event that effectively runs daily for three weeks, from morning until late into the night.

Nonetheless, it came as a slight shock when, on the tournament media WhatsApp group which flags up when the constant stream of interviews are being scheduled, the notice flashed up: ‘Petulance in Room 1.’

Had somebody official finally tired of listening to a player complaining about their lot? Nothing quite so interesting, it turned out. 

The culprit was predictive text, and the intention had been to announce the imminent arrival of Jessica Pegula.

Predictive text inadvertently led to the notice ¿Petulance in Room 1' flashing up on the tournament media WhatsApp group ahead of Jessica Pegula's (pictured) arrival for interview

Predictive text inadvertently led to the notice ‘Petulance in Room 1′ flashing up on the tournament media WhatsApp group ahead of Jessica Pegula’s (pictured) arrival for interview

Postcard from a life on tour 

In New York, you walk off what are usually reasonably-priced flights into a world not just of eyewatering inflation but what is now becoming widely discussed here as ‘Tipflation’. 

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Some eateries make a starting suggestion of 20 per cent added, going as high as 40 per cent. Would it not help if they could just pay the staff a reasonable wage?

This place is not for the financially fainthearted. At Flushing Meadows a premium is expected but, without wishing to sound parsimonious, $7.50 (£6) for a Diet Coke seems excessive.

Back in the city, the biggest rip-off so far has been the bicycle rickshaw pedallers offering rides around Central Park for $7.99 (£6.35) per minute. At these rates they stand to earn more than the winner of the Tour de France.

GB crowds defy doomsters 

A pet theory is that sporting attendances, especially in lower league football, are a useful indicator of what is going on in the real world. 

Such unscientific ideas seem plausible after a week in which official estimates have, yet again, been found to underestimate the British economy’s resilience.

Canada's team pose after winning their first ever Davis Cup championship in November 2022

Canada’s team pose after winning their first ever Davis Cup championship in November 2022

Industry figures state that sales for all music and sporting events in the UK this summer have been extremely buoyant, not just at the likes of Glastonbury and Wimbledon. 

That appears to have stretched to next week’s Davis Cup group stage qualifiers in Manchester, which will determine two of the eight nations going through to November’s finals.

GB will face France, Switzerland and Australia at the AO Arena. With the local authority having got right behind the event (unlike with previous editions in Glasgow), the crowds should be healthy — certainly on days when the host nation is in action.

Britain play on the Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, and the final match of the week against France has already seen more than 13,000 tickets shifted. This promises to make it the biggest attendance at a domestic Davis Cup match ever in the UK.

new balance



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