Hey, Novak Djokovic; tennis will never go back to unequal pay for men and women

(Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images) 

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The point that Novak Djokovic has ever-so-densely tried to make this week about why men’s tennis players deserve more money than women is not without merit. That’s not to say it’s correct either, and will never be taken seriously when it’s made in awkward ways, with bizarre references to hormones or through stupid, clearly sexist statements by players such as Sergiy Stakhovsky. (Those were shut down on Twitter by the ATP’s biggest feminist, Andy Murray — just another feather in Judy Murray’s cap.)

But perceived validity or not, it’s never going to happen. Men and women will always be paid the same at major events. Get over it, Novak. It’s a closed issue, even if dollars and cents say otherwise.

In one of her mic-dropping responses to Djokovic’s comments this week, Serena Williams mentioned that the women’s final for last year’s U.S. Open sold out before the men’s, a fact that was proudly trumpeted by the media at the time. And indeed, it was a big deal. (The reason was speculative buying — people were banking on seeing Serena playing to win the Grand Slam, a quest which fell short one match before.) But there was a certain irony there. That the Serena sellout was so celebrated showed how rare such a situation was. Women’s matches/sessions almost never sell out before men’s and the answer is simply: Men’s tennis is more popular at the moment. It’s a fact.

The economics of the issue don’t lie. At the tournament website for this week’s Miami Open, for instance, the advertised ticket prices start at $69 for the women’s final (on Saturday) and at $105 for the men’s final (on Sunday).

In fact, tickets to the men’s semifinals (starting at $75) are higher than tickets to the women’s final too. 

None of this matters though. It’s like the old line from "The Big Lebowski," paraphrased here: "You’re not wrong, Novak. You’re just [ill-informed]."

First off, these things are cyclical. If men’s tennis has a void after Federer, Nadal and Djokovic retire, women’s tennis might pick up the slack just like it did in the mid-’80s and early-aughts. But even that doesn’t justify the equal pay. It exists because it’s fair, it’s just and it’s the right thing to do. Plenty of things are like that and get changed all the time though. Why won’t this?

The progress of implemented social equality rarely, if ever, moves backwards. When gay marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court, the matter was, for all intents and purposes, decided. Have you heard about it once during this insane presidential primary season? No; because it’s over and done with. That doesn’t mean gay marriage is accepted by everyone and that doves flew through rainbows while people hugged on the street as a chorus broke out in Handel when the decision came down. There will always be racists, sexists and people who don’t agree with changing "the way it’s always been." But they’re spitting into the wind.

Once something is decreed from upon high, it’s almost never reversed. (There are countless examples through history, all bigger than an issue about whether Serena Williams gets $20,000 more for winning Wimbledon, but of the same basic tenor.) That’s why equal pay in tennis will never go the other way. Wimbeldon basically sealed the deal in 2007 thanks to decades of work by Billie Jean King and Venus Williams taking a stand. 

Pam Shriver, who played in an era when the prize money was different, is worried it might. During Shriver’s era, the pay was unequal but not egregiously so. In 1980, the men’s winner at Wimbledon made £20,000 while the women’s winner made £18,000. By the final year of unequal pay women’s champ Amelie Mauresmo earned 95 percent of what Roger Federer made. But on Twitter Tuesday night Shriver, a current ESPN analyst, mentioned that some tournaments that had once switched to equal pay had gone back on that before, theoretically disproving my hypothesis.

Indeed, the U.S. Open had been first to go to equal prize money in 1973 after Billie Jean King threatned to boycott. (What a boss. She’s easily the most influential female athlete in history, if not of any athlete — though no one would argue against Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe.) Shriver is referring to how the Australian Open, which had equal pay for years (with women actually getting more money in certain years), went back on that in 1995 before declaring for good in 2000 that it was equal pay for all. Evidently the Miami Open did the flip-flop-flip too at some point.

Shriver’s point is well taken, and she’s among the most qualified people in the world to weigh in on the topic, so I’m not arguing. But here’s where many, including myself, see it differently (perhaps because we weren’t on the front lines of the fight): While it was easy to go back on equal pay in 1995 when the Internet was in its infancy and the 24/7 news cycle had yet to be established, it’d be impossible to do so now. Society wouldn’t allow it. If Wimbledon came out tomorrow and said they were going back to the system in which women earned 95 percent of what men made, the backlash would be so swift and intense that the rule would change back before most people had ever heard about it.

In today’s world, the socially conscious players, fans and media would never allow it. Serena Williams could threaten to boycott. Roger Federer and Andy Murray could do so too. And even those who agreed with it, such as Djokovic, would be committing public relations suicide if they applauded the decision.

That’s why tennis prize money isn’t changing, not in 2016 and not beyond that. That genie has been let out of the bottle and it’s never going back in.

Tennis is the only major sport where men and women are on equal footing. That’s nothing but a good thing.