Women are the show, men get dough
Not much has changed at Wimbledon in its 116 years.
With its grass courts (it's the only grass-court grand slam tournament), all-white dress code for both competition and practice (Anna Kournikova found that out over the weekend when she went out to practice in tight black shorts and was politely asked to change), and traditional strawberries and cream (last year 75,000 pounds of English strawberries were consumed during the two weeks of the tournament), Wimbledon can be quite traditional.
With this history in mind, it is no surprise to many observers that women are once again getting less prize money at this year's championships. The men's champion will win about $800,000 $60,000 more than the women's.
And the discrepancy has grown. Last year, Venus Williams picked up about $57,000 less than the $762,500 that men's champion Goran Ivanisevic won.
Despite calls for parity including one yesterday from Britain's cabinet minister in charge of sport, Tessa Jowell All England Club chairman Tim Phillips has rejected claims that the tournament is out of touch.
"I think the US and Australian Opens are out of line, not us," he said. "There are not many other tournaments that pay equal prize money. In fact, not many other sporting events pay equally."
But over the past few years, as the women's game has mushroomed in popularity, some of its leading lights have become increasingly outspoken on the subject. Last year, Venus Williams, who is here gunning for her third consecutive Wimbledon title, asked: "Why would you even want to play in a place that doesn't give you equal prize money with the men? The ladies need to get together on this one."
Lindsay Davenport, Wimbledon champion in 1999, warned that a walkout could be a possible future payback for past and present slights. But despite threats of boycotts, or as Billie Jean King calls them "girlcotts," Wimbledon remains defiant.
"We think we are being fair," Mr. Phillips says. I don't see it changing in the foreseeable future."
How long tradition holds up over just plain business is the big question. The American cable network TNT is once again showcasing women in its Wimbledon coverage this year. And on Eurosport, a major European network, ratings for women's tennis were nearly twice those for the men's last year. "It is clear by our television ratings, attendance figures, and worldwide notoriety that women's tennis is undeniably deserving of equal prize money," says Kevin Wulff, chief executive officer of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA).
Former champion and current TV commentator John McEnroe dismisses the long-held argument that men play best-of-five matches while the women play best-of-three. "The women are carrying the promotional load and bringing fans through the turnstiles," McEnroe argues. "They should be paid accordingly."
Nick Bollettieri, who has coached Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, and Venus and Serena Williams (who are seeded No. 1 and No. 2 at Wimbledon and in the latest WTA ranking), has a democratic solution to the controversy. "They [the International Tennis Federation] should take a public poll. Let the people decide."
No similar controversy exists on the men's side of the draw. There the big story has been Pete Sampras. The 30-year-old, who practically owned Wimbledon for most of the 1990s, suffered the ignominy of being dumped out in five sets in his second-round match by a little known Swiss player named George Bastl.
The defeat on notorious Court 2 dubbed the Graveyard of Champions summed up the mental anguish that the seven-time champion has had to deal with over the past two years.
"I am really bummed out," Sampras said in the post-match interview room. "As long as I feel I can win majors I will play. But right now I am discouraged. To come up pretty empty here is discouraging."
"The players used to fear Pete Sampras," Bollettieri says. "Now, they're not afraid to play him. In the game of tennis, losing that mental edge is a huge thing."
Every tournament that Sampras fails to win brings out the calls for the 13-time grand-slam winner to call it a day. His game seems to be in such disarray that it is almost unrecognizable to those who have witnessed his entire career.
"It has not been a pleasant thing for any of us to watch," says Jim Courier, a rival of Sampras in the 1990s.
Still, Sampras says he's not planning a life after tennis just yet. "Being so dominant over the years, it obviously gets a lot more difficult as the years go on to keep staying dominant," said Sampras, who has little left to prove except perhaps to himself. "But I plan on being back. I am not going to end my time here with that loss."
With Sampras and Agassi both bounced out of Wimbledon, media attention is turning to Britain's best hope, No. 4 seed Tim Henman. The player, who sparks a wave of "Henmania" in Britain each June the tournament is nicknamed "Timbledon" is primed to overturn his heartbreak of last year, when he lost a four-set, rain-soaked semifinal to Ivanisevic. This year's draw is favorable for Henman, with no former champions or finalists in his path to the finals. (Henman played Australian Scott Draper yesterday.)
The last time a British player won a Wimbledon singles title (Virginia Wade) was in 1977, during celebrations marking Queen Elizabeth II's 25 years on the throne. This year's tournament coincides with the queen's 50th jubilee.
If he can face the burden of his country's expectations, Henman could become the first British men's singles champion at Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936.