Friday, 10 February 2012

Equal Money for Equal Status

Now that the dust has settled on another terrific Australian Open, it is my turn to offer an opinion on the Grand Slam singles money debate.  The same old proponents of the dark age theory that men should be paid more than women seem to roll out their tired cries for monetary discrimination each time a five set classic is played before us, most recently the epic Men's Final at Melbourne Park.

Of course these same people, seemingly led by a number of high profile ex male players (many ironically who played in the days where men were financially rewarded  to a larger extent than their female counterparts) remain conspicuously silent when a best of five sets match is the antithesis of the Djokovic-Nadal classic.  Voices were notable by their absence after the two Australian Open Finals immediately preceding the 2012 version were won in straight sets, but effectively finished as a spectacle long before the final points.

The argument over monetary reward is misplaced and hides what truly could be debated in a much clearer atmosphere.

The reason why singles champions, and as a corollary all other participants in the draw, are awarded equal prize money is because the same weight of prestige is given to the achievement of winning a Grand Slam singles tournament, irrespective of gender.  Try telling me that you rate any of Martina Navratilova's Wimbledon titles as less prestigious than one of Roger Federer's famous victories.  Do all of Chris Evert's runner-up performances pale in significance to that of say David Nalbandian or Mark Philippoussis?  Of course not.

Equal reward for an equal achievement.  How many sets that achievement took or how many minutes spent on court to determine a title has no bearing on the USD, AUD or Euros that each of the Grand Slam tournaments apportions to the players.  God forbid if we tried that for sport in general - I guess we would end  up dishing out higher level gold medals for 800 metre runners due to completing more laps than the 400 metre winners. 

The debate, if it is to be had, is about whether best of three sets is still the best method for deciding women's singles matches at Grand Slam level.  Remember, for all the trumpeting of how good men must be for needing to win three sets to advance, it only occurs (outside of the Davis Cup which is a team event and not a prize money issue) at the four Grand Slam events.  Elsewhere the men play best of three, just as the women.

The alternative then is for men's singles at Grand Slam tournaments to be decided in best of three matches.  I am not proposing this, but the Australian Open 2012 offers some interesting statistics concerning the necessity of playing best of five sets, and why the women could possibly say "why go to those lengths when we can reach a decision more efficiently".  My opinion is pretty much the "if it's not broke, don't fix it" variety. 

Anyway for your numerical pleasure.

Of the 127 Main Draw men's  singles matches played at the Australian Open this year, 76 matches had players leading two sets to love (matches which ended due to retirement are excluded).  Of these 60 were won in straight sets, 6 in four sets and 5 in five sets.  Only 5 saw the player leading after 2 sets proceed to lose in five sets.

Further, of the matches where a player led two sets to one after splitting the opening two sets, only 8 saw that player eventually lose, and 7 of those matches were in the first or second rounds.  (Yes the other one was quite significant - Djokovic in the semi final against Murray came back from a two sets to one deficit to win and ultimately win the title)

However my point is not to argue that the configuration of men's matches at Grand Slam level be changed, but that to change the design of women's matches to best of five would do little to change results of matches currently decided by winning the first 2 sets or by winning 2 of three.  Empirical evidence suggests that playing longer does not guarantee significant changes.

And finally, to those that argue that time on court should be the measure of earnings, I suggest that quality of time on court be considered above all else.  Sustained excellence over five sets as exemplified in the 2008 Wimbledon masterpiece between Nadal and Federer is rare, and having to strive for that third set can often diminish the standard of tennis on show, as matches drag into the third and fourth hours.

Why should first round thrashings handed out by top female players be extended to three set models of the same thing.  The mercy rule applied to Azarenka's early victims in Aus Open 2012 after two sets saved her opponents from another 15-20 minutes of embarrassment, whereas Djokovic's unfortunate first, second and third round prey had a torturous three sets before the white flag could be raised.

Let the men do what they do to achieve Grand Slam singles glory, but don't ever question the women's worth purely on length of matches.  Some of the most famous matches have been best of three set encounters of which no one complains - e.g. 1981 US Open Final where Tracy Austin came from a 1-6 first set against Martina Navratilova to win two tie break sets and the title.

The money for Grand Slam tournament should always be based on the prestige of the tournament concerned, and for tennis at the highest level that must remain free of gender bias.

The separate question of whether matches should be decided by best of three or best of five is seemingly a seasonal poser, based on the occasional blockbuster five setter witnessed at a Grand Slam tournament, one such as the Men's Final so pleasurably experienced on 29-30 January 2012.