Tennis has led the way in sporting equality for decades, yet media coverage of the men’s and women’s game remains glaringly one-sided.
As we come towards the end of this year’s Women’s History Month, tennis is preparing to mark a significant milestone, as this June will mark the 50th anniversary of the great Billie Jean King gathering more than 60 women together at the Gloucester Hotel in London to form the Women’s Tennis Association.
This was the culmination of a movement that gathered momentum three years earlier when leading female players expressed their anger at being treated like second-class citizens in tennis’ fledgling professional era.
As a result, King, Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey, Kerry Melville, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Judy Dalton, Valerie Ziegenfuss and Julie Heldman – known as the Original Nine – all signed symbolic one-dollar contracts to compete in a new tour, the Virginia Slims Series.
That evolved into the WTA and later in 1973, the US Open became the first Grand Slam to offer equal prize money after King threatened to lead a boycott.
It took until 2007 for all Grand Slams to pay equal prize money, and in the decade and a half since, prize money in the women’s game has risen dramatically.
Despite the triumphs of tennis superstars like Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and the Williams sisters, the tennis media is still focused on the star names in the men’s game.
Conduct a quick Google search for ‘best tennis players in the world‘, and you’ll find 50 men and one woman, with Serena Williams the only female to receive a mention.
That’s why Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association issued a call to boost the visibility of women’s sport by removing the inherent gender bias that exists within the results people see in search engine results for the sport.
This search engine example highlights why so much more can be done, with the LTA keen to highlight the issues that continue to undermine the contribution of women in tennis.
“Greater visibility is crucial for women’s tennis and for women’s sport in general in terms of building the perception of sport as being something for women, and in turn leading to greater participation,” says Julie Porter, LTA Chief Operating Officer and Executive lead for the organisation’s women and girls activity.
“We’ve seen recently that the women’s finals at Grand Slams have attracted more television viewers than the men’s finals, but that visibility is not yet reflected in the balance of what people see when they search.”
“It’s genuinely shocking to see how dominated these results are by male-specific information. While gender parity in search is an issue that reaches far beyond just sport, if it is like this for a leading women’s sport like tennis then it demonstrates just how important it is that this issue is addressed. ”
“As part of our plans to transform tennis in Britain, we want to drive change with an ultimate goal of becoming a truly gender-balanced sport across all aspects of the game. There is more we can all do to achieve that, but we need others to help too.
“That’s why we are calling on search engines and digital content providers to play their part in addressing this issue and helping us raise the visibility of women’s sport.”
Tennis does better than most sports as it seeks to find a balance between male and female competitors, but the number of female players continuing to take part in the sport beyond their teenage years dips compared to their male counterparts.
JUDY MURRAY’S VIEW
In the opinion of Judy Murray, mother of Grand Slam champions Jamie and Andy, boosting the number of female coaches can be key to getting more girls to take up tennis and ensure they remain in the game beyond their teenage years.
“We have some momentum behind women’s sport now, but we need to build on that and keep our foot on the gas,” said Murray in an interview with Tennis365.com.
“There is a real chance to move women’s sport forward across so many areas and we have to take advantage of the opportunity that has now presented itself. ”
“Those of us who are involved in women’s sport at any level need to speak up and make sure we take advantage of our momentum because we’ve never had it as good as this.”
“I want to see more females in prominent roles in top sporting organisations and we also need to get more females to take on the challenge of coaching in all sports.”
“Coaching remains a male-dominated world and that does not encourage girls to play sport or set their sights on coaching, but there is no reason why we cannot change those attitudes if we have good role models ready to step forward and make a difference.”
The highest-earning female sporting heroes tend to come from tennis each year and we can only hope that media coverage of the women’s game offers a fair reflection of their success sooner rather than later.
Barriers, after all, are there to be broken.