Olympic tennis: another scenario for gender equality

When Rafael Nadal questioned the discussion about equal rewards between women and men, many criticized him without fully listening to his arguments. Because indeed, there are spaces of equity that are worth highlighting

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The Mallorcan tennis player Rafa Nadal, during an interview, in a file photo. EFE/Alejandro Garcia
The Mallorcan tennis player Rafa Nadal, during an interview, in a file photo. EFE/Alejandro Garcia

Rafael Nadal was harshly criticized for his statements in the interview for “El Objetivo”.

There was a time when, when it came to saying what one thinks about certain subjects, one only had to be careful not to be fallacious or insulting. These times of deconstruction and social media constitute a much more delicate challenge: “let’s be careful. Everything we say will be used against us.”

It has just happened to the Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal, whose explanation of why he does not believe that an equitable distribution of money between men’s and women’s professional circuits is either possible or fair, deserved many rejections and few supporters, without us delving into, analyzing and, eventually, incorporating the reasons argued.

For now, there are scenarios in which that equity is already established. It happens with the Big Four (Australia, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and Flushing Meadow). It happens with the Olympic Games in which, in addition to the internal prize that medalists from different countries receive -generally, the cash recognition of the members of the podium does not discriminate against gender-, we know that a medal in skateboard, breaking or mixed doubles occupy the same space in the medal table as one in the 100 meters flat, a 4x100 freestyle medal or a women’s single.

It’s more. There was a time when, when it came to great popular expectations, the women’s tennis tournament aroused much more enthusiasm than the men’s tournament. And it was, coincidentally or not, in Paris. 100 years ago.

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It was not at Roland Garros, which opened just four years later, but at the so-called Yves du Manoir Olympic Stadium.

Of course, for the French public, the illusion of triumph was enormous at the hands of at least three of their famous Musketeers. Two of them, Jean Borotra and Henri Cochet, had just defined the title in the French Grand Slam and the first of them also took the crown at Wimbledon. However, none of them could beat the North American Vincent Richards, whom they couldn’t beat in the doubles match for gold either. Even worse: the five titles at stake that time were won by the North Americans. It is then, when it comes to completing the roster of champions, that it is the ladies who take over the scene.

No one doubted the announced final. On one hand, the American Helen Wills. Between 1922 and 1938, she achieved 19 Grand Slam singles, without having played the Australian one even once.

On the other hand, local Suzanne Lenglen, the Divine, the woman who raised tennis to a level of transcendence that had never been achieved, regardless of gender. Despite different health problems, conflicts of different kinds with the management and the fact that she performed only once in the North American Grand Slam (she didn’t participate in the one in Australia either), Lenglen won 12 titles among the top tournaments in France and Great Britain. It was between 1914 and 1926.

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Lenglen entered the Olympic event and her name appeared in the main draw in whose first round she had to face the North American Marion Jessup, who advanced to the second round due to no introduction of her rival, whose injuries excluded her from much of the 1924 peak season.

So much expectation had generated the possibility of this star clash that, even at a time when tennis was self-perceived amateur and the only money available was handled very quietly, that confrontation remained a powerful pending issue.

So much so that in February 1926 the world of tennis gave great pleasure and perhaps the most authentic match of the century in this sport was born.

At this point, the most relevant fact indicates that Lenglen and Wills only officially played once, just on that date, at the Carlton Club Hotel in Cannes. It is true that it was not an exhibition but a tournament in itself. But that duel was so far from being at risk that in nine previous games (5 by Wills and 4 by Lenglen) the rivals barely lost 9 games and won 6 of the matches 6-0 and 6-0.

Legend has it that tickets were sold at a value six times higher than that of a privileged row in any of the other major tournaments. And that there were no less than 6000 spectators, not counting those who, unable to get tickets, abandoned the traditional glamour of the Cote d’Azur and did not hesitate to watch the game climbing the eucalyptus cups that surrounded the main court. There were opportunists who rented stairs so that the most anxious could watch a few points of the match, and there was no shortage of the elegant and wealthy neighbor who owned two-story houses who rented their windows for 20 francs per game.

At the time, no one would have doubted the popularity and commercial opportunities of women’s tennis. Hand in hand with two phenomena such as in recent times, men can use the Federer, Nadal and Djokovic trio as their own example.

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Market issues: no one disputes the right to equate prizes in competitions in which ladies and gentlemen cohabit. After all, we don’t know of anyone who has asked both face-to-face and television viewers if they only pay attention to one or the other.

The problem arises when we talk about the other tournaments or the specific weight of one circuit compared to the other.

Even in times of crisis, the ATP has managed to maintain a status that does not overstate any economic conflict with its stars. In this regard, the presence of main sponsors is key both for certain specific spaces on the calendar, such as ATP 1000 or Finals, and for sponsoring other events. This is a scenario, so far, more hostile for girls.

Perhaps one of the reasons has to do with the idea of generating fanaticism based on stereotypes. That of having someone who stands out for talent, who is first and foremost a great fighter, the physical prowess, who knows above all how to attack or how to defend. What has been easy to establish with men is not at all clear among women. What’s more, until the appearance of a rivalry like that of Alcaraz and Sinner, it seemed that something similar to that of the ladies could begin to happen to the gentlemen.

Last example to be more graphic.

At the end of 1987, I had the privilege of covering the final two tournaments. First the one from the WTA and then the one from the ATP. The two were played at Madison Square Garden. The one for the girls was won by Steffi Graf against Gabriela Sabatini in four sets (there were few years in which the final of this tournament was defined as the best of five sets). The 16-player squad included aggressive greats like Claudia Kohde-Kilsch and Helena Sukova, talented geniuses like Hana Mandlikova, an ice lady like Manuela Maleeva and the daring serve and net player that was Pam Shriver. And, above all else, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert also appeared: rarely did the sport record a duel between styles so dissimilar and full of excellence and glory.

That year, and by a good margin, the women’s tournament registered a clearly higher ticket sales than the men’s tournament.

Things from the market. And the stereotypes.