‘There’s so much more that needs to be done’: 50 years after the Battle of the Sexes, gender equity remains elusive

NEW YORK — As Coco Gauff received her $3 million check after winning the US Open title earlier this month, she glanced to the far side of the stage and couldn’t hide her gratitude.

“Thank you Billie, for fighting for this,” she said as she looked towards Billie Jean King.

At just 19, Gauff doesn’t know a US Open without equal prize money between the men and women. Her paycheck was the same amount as the one that men’s champion Novak Djokovic received.

This year marked 50 years of equal pay at the tournament, commemorated with tributes to King — the groundbreaking pioneer who pushed to make it happen after founding the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) earlier that same year.

The US Open became the first sporting event in the world to offer equal purses for its male and female competitors in 1973, and since then, the three remaining Grand Slam events followed suit, starting with the Australian Open, first in 1984 but consistently since 2001, and the French Open and Wimbledon in 2007.

“I have to thank Billie for giving me this opportunity to have this good, good job,” Venus Williams, who fought for equal pay at Wimbledon and the French Open, said in a ceremony this month honoring King. “Thank you for having that courage to get everyone in the right direction … I can’t imagine what that was like, but you did it. You did it well. You remained a champion throughout it, and a role model to this day.”

Wednesday marks another 50th anniversary — that of King’s historic “Battle of the Sexes” match, in which she beat Bobby Riggs, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, at the Houston Astrodome. It was viewed by an estimated 90 million people worldwide, and was lauded at the time as a triumph for women in sports.

With so many significant anniversaries, it’s a milestone year for women’s tennis, but where does the sport stand now when it comes to equality?

According to some players, there’s still more to do.

“We have equal pay at the Slams, but it’s not everywhere,” said world No. 4 and WTA player council member Jessica Pegula. “I think that’s a little bit of a misconception that maybe the more casual fan didn’t realize.

“We’re working towards getting women’s sports to get paid more, getting paid what they should be. Especially tennis, I feel like we’re a leading example almost because we’re the highest-paid female sport, which is a big deal. For us, we already think there’s so much more that needs to be done, and we’re at the top.”

While the four major events have now been offering equal prize money for both singles champions for 16 years, the same cannot be said for many of the other tour-level events. During the lead-in events for the US Open, neither of the 1000-level tournaments — the Canadian Open and the Western & Southern Open — offer equal prize money, nor did the recently combined 500-level event in Washington D.C.

For example, Djokovic, the men’s champion in Cincinnati, received $1.02 million, while Gauff, the women’s champion, earned less than half of that amount at $454,500. Both won in best-of-three set formats.

“I do believe — and this is honestly very sad — that the WTA is far from doing a lot of things right at this point.”

Ons Jabeur

Amy Binder, the WTA’s vice president of global communications, said such discrepancies are unfortunately common throughout sports.

“As reported in [the Sports Business Journal], the value of the broadcast rights sold for the recently completed Women’s World Cup ranged between $1-$10 million,” Binder said in an email this week. “The same rights for the men’s World Cup were $100-$200 million. This reality is what is felt across all women’s professional sport properties and is at the root of the significant difference in the compensation paid to male versus female athletes. It is not fair, it is not right, but it is the reality.”

In June, the WTA announced all combined 500- and 1000-level events, like the three tournaments mentioned above, will offer equal prize money by 2027, and the non-combined events at that level will do so by 2033.

It’s simply not enough, said world No. 7 and three-time major finalist Ons Jabeur.

“I do believe — and this is honestly very sad — that the WTA is far from doing a lot of things right at this point,” Jabeur told ESPN in August. “We have this 10-year plan to get equal prize money [at every event], but I have always wondered why this plan is now, and why we’re not already getting equal prize money.”

The WTA agrees with that sentiment, according to Binder.

“Progress, while never fast enough, is being made versus just talking about it,” Binder said. “While we would of course love for it to happen sooner, the approach must be sustainable, and this will take some time. We cannot continue to simply wait for the commercial world to do what is right and what is deserved, which is paying rights fees that are equal to that of our male counterparts.”

When asked during a pre-tournament news conference about the lack of equal pay at the Western & Southern Open, which was owned and operated by the USTA until last year, US Open tournament director and the organization’s chief executive of professional tennis Stacey Allaster also pointed to the different media deals as part of the discrepancy.

“Certainly with Cincinnati, it was and still right now is a different player commitment system, different broadcast agreements,” Allaster said. “We know now, together with [WTA chairman and CEO] Steve Simon’s leadership, the CBC’s partnership, Cincinnati, Canada, Rome are now on a pathway for equal prize money.”

As part of the WTA’s pathway to equal prize money, top players — like Pegula and Jabeur — will be required to play in more events and some of the top-tier 1000-level events will be extended from one week to two. With an already grueling season that lasts from January to November, those changes weren’t welcomed by all.

“The frustrating thing about it is, they say, ‘Oh you want equal prize money so now you have to play more tournaments,'” Jabeur said. “It’s like, ‘We’re not just good enough on our own to get it?’ If you go on social media and see the top 10 from women’s tennis and the top 10 from men, for example, you can see the numbers. You can’t tell me people don’t watch, don’t care, that’s just wrong.”

There are concerns among the players about other organizational decisions from the WTA as well. Perhaps nothing has gotten more attention recently than the delayed announcement of a site for the WTA Finals, which begin on Oct. 29.

While the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Finals will be in Turin, Italy, for the third straight year as part of a five-year deal originally announced in 2019, the WTA Finals location wasn’t revealed until earlier this month after several weeks of controversy.

The year-end event, which features the season’s top eight singles players and doubles teams, was originally slated to be played in Shenzhen, China, from 2022 through 2030. But the 2022 edition was held in Fort Worth, Texas, after the WTA suspended all activities in China due to concerns over former doubles world No. 1 Peng Shuai.

The relocated event drew headlines for its visible lack of fans in attendance, and the players wanted to make sure the same scenario didn’t happen again in 2023.

“For sure it’s pretty unfortunate and annoying we don’t have any decision yet,” said current world No. 2 Iga Swiatek in August, before the location was announced. “When we were in Fort Worth, they kind of assured us the decision [was] going to be made at the beginning of the year.”

The WTA announced in April that tournaments would resume in China this year as assurances had been made regarding Peng’s safety and “more progress could be made” by returning to the country than not. A 250-level event in Guangzhou is currently underway, and there are multiple tournaments scheduled in the country for later this month and in October, including the 1000-level China Open. The WTA Elite Trophy tournament, a second-tier year-end event, will be held in Zhuhai. But the WTA Finals were not announced as part of that return.

“For some reason the men, they want the money, they think like that. I’m like, ‘Whoa.’ We want the money, too but we really want some [societal] change.”

Billie Jean King

Rumors swirled about potential locations, including Saudi Arabia, which was met with heavy scrutiny due to the country’s history regarding rights for women and those in the LGBTQIA+ community. The ATP had previously announced the Next Gen Finals would be held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, through 2027.

Jabeur, who is from Tunisia, was in favor of the idea, calling it a “great step” for the country and “something that could help the Arab world have more tennis players [and] get more involved in sports.” But others were against it.

“I would prefer the WTA not go to Saudi Arabia,” Chris Evert, the retired 18-time major champion and current ESPN analyst, said last month. “Obviously they have the human rights issues and everything, just the way they treat women. I would be against it. But I don’t have a vote.”

It is unclear how serious the conversations with the Middle Eastern country were, but the backlash may have ultimately impacted the WTA’s decision. During the US Open it was announced the event would be held in Cancun, Mexico. The WTA said the choice was made based on “multiple factors including player logistics, travel accessibility, venue capacity and a commitment to supporting and showcasing women’s tennis.”

While speaking at a panel discussion at the US Open, King — who had previously expressed support for engaging in talks with Saudi Arabia — was happy about the WTA’s decision to go elsewhere for the tournament.

“I’m glad we’re not going to Saudi Arabia right now, because Saudi Arabia, for women, is really difficult,” King said. “For some reason the men, they want the money, they think like that. I’m like, ‘Whoa.’ We want the money, too but we really want some [societal] change.”

Still, Cancun adds another complication for several of the women. The finals of the Billie Jean King Cup, which features several of the world’s best players representing eight countries, gets underway just two days after its conclusion in Seville, Spain — about 5,000 miles away and with a seven-hour time difference.

“I just love the potential idea of China to Australia to North America to Europe to Australia,” wrote Ellen Perez, who will likely be a member of the Australian team for the Billie Jean King Cup and is currently No. 6 in the race to make the WTA Finals in doubles, on social media.

After King won the 1972 US Open title, she received a $10,000 paycheck — $15,000 less than what Ilie Nastase, her male counterpart, earned. Upset by the injustice, she threatened to not play in the 1973 edition of the tournament if there wasn’t equal pay.

“[In] 1972 at the press conference, at the media conference, I’m sitting there internally thinking, ‘I’m having a hard time with this.’ I finally said to them, You know, we’re not coming back next year unless we get equal prize money,” King said. “Internally I’m saying, ‘What have I done? I have not talked to the women yet. I haven’t talked to anybody yet.’

“Then I realized my job is to go get a sponsor. I figured if I could get a sponsor and show that we could make up the difference, that the tournament would be hard put.”

She did just that and worked directly with Bristol Myers Squibb to acquire the money. Both winners — John Newcombe and Margaret Court — received $25,000 in 1973.

King started the WTA the same year in order to provide equal and fair opportunities for women in the sport. Compared to many other women’s sports leagues, it’s been a runaway success, and women’s tennis players frequently dominate the lists of highest-paid female athletes, thanks to their prize money and endorsement opportunities.

But 50 years later, many of the challenges of achieving equity remain.

That could be changing in the near future. According to a recent report from The Telegraph, high-ranking representatives from the WTA and the ATP are set to meet at the end of the month in London to discuss a potential merger.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal voiced their support for the idea in 2020. John McEnroe called it “inevitable” earlier this year, and Kim Clijsters spoke in favor of it in July.

King has previously said that’s what she’s always wanted.

“I agree [about the need to merge the WTA and ATP], and have been saying so since the early 1970s,” King tweeted in response to Federer in 2020. “One voice, women and men together, has long been my vision for tennis. The WTA on its own was always Plan B…

“Let’s make it happen.”