Equal pay debate a ‘wake-up call’ for Venus

Venus Williams’s dog Harold waits at Williams signs autographs inside the Daniel Island Club for the All Access Hour during the Volvo Car Open on Monday. Grace Beahm/Staff

Venus Williams was at the forefront of securing equal prize money for women’s tennis players at Wimbledon nine years ago. Now, women and men are paid the same at the four Grand Slam events and at some — but not all — joint tournaments throughout the tennis calendar.

Imagine Venus’ disappointment, then, when equal pay for female athletes emerged again as a subject for debate in recent weeks. Comments from the tournament director at Indian Wells — and from men’s star Novak Djokovic — reignited the controversy.

And it’s not just tennis. Recently, members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team filed a wage-discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer, claiming a pay gap when compared with the men’s team.

“I thought we were a little bit further along,” Williams said Monday at the Volvo Car Open on Daniel Island. “But in a lot of ways, I’m happy that it happened. It’s a wake-up call for me, to not sit still and to do what I can for women — not just in tennis, but around the world.”

The Indian Wells tournament director lost his job after claiming that women’s tennis “rides on the coattails” of the men’s game.

“If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born because they have carried this sport,” Ray Moore said. “They really have.”

Djokovic suggested that men deserve more prize money.

“I think that our men’s tennis world, ATP world, should fight for more because the stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men’s tennis matches,” he said. “I think that’s one of the reasons why maybe we should get awarded more. Women should fight for what they think they deserve and we should fight for what we think we deserve.”

The top money winner on the WTA Tour so far this year is 2015 Volvo Car Open champ Angelique Kerber with $2.9 million; Djokovic leads the men’s tour with almost $4.9 million. The pay gap extends down the rankings, as well. The No. 10 player on the men’s tour has earned $604,000 to $537,000 for the No. 10 woman.

“I thought we were better than this,” 2014 Volvo Car Open champion Andrea Petkovic said of the debate. “I thought we were more modern in tennis, leaders on this issue. The fact is, we don’t have equal pay. We have it in the Grand Slams and a few other tournaments, but men earn more than we do.

“I thought these problems were in the past, that we had come much further than that. But it’s good to be confronted with the thoughts of men that still think that way and to have those discussions with them.”

And yes, Petkovic has heard that the men play best-of-five sets at some tournaments.

“Always the five sets,” she said. “If I hear that one more time, I will play five sets each and every time just so I don’t have to hear that. I get so frustrated with that.”

For Venus, it’s a larger issue that just a few more dollars on a paycheck.

“It’s important for men to get on board,” she said. “Men have daughters, wives, sisters. They should want the same opportunities for the women in their families. They have to realize that when they say these things, they are also saying it about the women in their lives.”

Total prize money for the Volvo Car Open is $753,000, with $128,100 going to the winner.

Vanderbilt star Frances Altick earned a wild-card berth in the Volvo Car Open by winning the Shape Invitational last month at the Family Circle Tennis Center.

But Altick’s stay in Charleston did not last long this time. She was eliminated by American Alison Riske, 6-3, 6-2, in a first-round match on Monday.

Nevertheless, it was good experience for Altick, who has relatives in Charleston and plans a pro career after college. She and her Vanderbilt teammates will try to defend the national title they won last year.

The youngest player in the Volvo Car Open is 18-year-old Ana Konjuh of Croatia. Oldest? 2004 champion Venus Williams, who is 35.

There are players from 21 countries in the field at the Volvo Car Open, excluding qualifiers. The U.S. has the most (11), with Germany second with five. German players Angelique Kerber and Andrea Petkovic have won the last two tournaments on Daniel Island.

Serena Williams is not on Daniel Island this week — “I miss her,” sister Venus said — but her presence is still felt. Serena is No. 1 this week for the 164th week in a row, the second-longest streak in WTA history behind Steffi Graf’s 186. All told, Serena has been No. 1 for 287 weeks in her career, third all-time behind Graf (377) and Martina Navratilova (332).