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A celebration of women’s sport

Is tennis a feminist sport? Linda Pearce explores that very question while also looking at the most compelling storylines from the 2021 Australian Open.

Just under 24 hours before Tennis Australia chair Jayne Hrdlicka stared down a horde of anti-vaxxer and anti-Andrews hecklers during the controversial Australian Open men’s presentation ceremony, she presided over a more civilised trophy-giving evening on Rod Laver Arena.

Saturday night. Prime time on host broadcaster Nine. Hrdlicka, whose substantial day job is as CEO of the rebooted Virgin Australia, was recognising the achievements of the world’s highest-paid sportswoman, Japanese superstar Naomi Osaka, and rising American Jennifer Brady, following a warm-spirited contest presided over by experienced British chair umpire Alison Hughes.

On the non-sponsor side of the coin tossed pre-match were the names of WTA trailblazers Judy Dalton and Kerry Melville-Reid, who were part of the famous “Original Nine” who signed symbolic $1 cheques as they helped to found the WTA established by the great Billie Jean King in the early 1970s.

The winner of the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup was awarded prize money—$2.75 million for Osaka, $1.5 million for Brady—that was exactly what the men would receive the following night for their best-of-five-sets contest. Women getting more pay for (in theory) less hours of work? Incredible, really, when viewed through the lens of history’s pay inequalities that continue to this day.

The most egalitarian sporting event in Australia?

So, phew! Re-read any or all of the above if needed. Sometimes we just need to pause and remember a) how far women’s tennis has come and b) what it continues to represent in a global sense for sport.

“The Australian Open is by far the most egalitarian sporting event in Australia. Absolutely,’’ says Peter Johnston, the experienced tennis administrator whose many hats have included serving as the AO’s former deputy tournament director, and the WTA’s Senior Vice-President, Operations.

“That’s on all fronts—not just equal prize money, which is massive on its own.’’

Not that the Australian Open was first on the financial remuneration front—that was its US sister, which made the monumental decision in 1973. Australia was next, in 2001. Then, after the French belatedly got with the program in 2006, Wimbledon was almost shamed into it the following year as a result of a campaign helped by a famous op-ed piece in The Times by Venus Williams. 

Still, they got there. Eventually.

When reflecting on the feminist leanings among the slam siblings, Wimbledon still had one of the most recent quirks. Until as recently as 2018, old-school English traditions meant that there was a Miss/Mrs before the (woman) player’s name, and for anyone married but keeping their maiden name, well… in Serena’s case, a Williams anywhere else was a Mrs Williams at the All England Club. Serena, who is married to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, must have been wondering why the chair umpire kept talking about her mum. Or grandma. The honour boards there still list past champions Mrs JM Lloyd (otherwise known as Chris Evert), Mrs R Cawley (Evonne Goolagong Cawley) and even Mrs LW King (Billie Jean).

Wimbledon has also caught up in that regard, though, and sometimes seemingly small decisions can make big statements. While the US Open has had 128-draw qualifying events in both the men’s and women’s singles since 1998, it was only in 2019 that the Australian Open granted parity by boosting the women’s numbers from 96.

Across the four majors, only the occasional scheduling-related schism tends to interrupt what is generally a peaceful co-existence. And, as for the debate about whether women should also play best-of-five sets to be worthy of equal prize money, rest assured that in these times of short attention spans and instant gratification, there is more chance of the men being trimmed to best-of-three.

Yet there is another benefit of shorter-format women’s matches, as Johnston points out. “By playing three sets, it gets the women two matches on centre court in the day, and only one men’s, and generally it’s a split at night, so they’re getting the equal billing on the major courts.’’

Compelling storylines at Melbourne Park

This year, from among the multiple compelling women’s storylines at Melbourne Park, we were left with some questions (and perhaps a few answers):

Four years and counting after claiming her 23rd major singles title on Rod Laver Arena, can the aforementioned 39-year-old Williams ever equal Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24? Increasingly unlikely.

Osaka has established herself as the pre-eminent hardcourt player of recent times, having won four of the past six majors played on a surface with the sure footing and even bounce that so suit her powerful game. Can she translate that to the clay of Roland Garros or Wimbledon’s grass? Having not competed internationally as a junior, the Florida-raised Japanese native has far less experience of both, but also the thirst to learn. So, probably.

What of the emerging American Jennifer Brady, who reached her first slam final at Melbourne Park after a semi at Flushing Meadows, and is leading the charge for what is almost the forgotten US generation between Ms Serena and the 16-year-old prodigy Coco Gauff, with 2020 AO champion Sofia Kenin somewhere in between? With her big serve and forehand, Brady’s moment is surely coming.

Despite, from a local perspective, top seeded Ash Barty’s unfortunate exit in the quarterfinals, there was so much to like about what we saw in the women’s event and, indeed, tennis continues to be the standard-bearer in so many ways. The top nine highest-paid women on the annual Forbes list of the world’s highest-paid female athletes are tennis players—headed by Osaka (US$37.4 million), Williams (US$36m) and Australia’s world No.1 Ash Barty (US$13.1m). 

FYI: No.10 was US soccer star Alex Morgan. A fair way back.

As for that Saturday night on Rod Laver Arena, where a half-crowd had gathered in accordance with Covid restrictions, the marvellous and influential Osaka again pressed her claims as the natural successor to Williams, whom she had beaten in the semis.

But in the context of what it all represents in a broader sense, we should also acknowledge and applaud the importance of that now-annual Saturday night celebration of women’s sport in a country where that is rare.

“It’s absolutely a big deal,’’ said Johnston. “And don’t forget, it’s seen by a global audience. We do look at it often through Australian eyes, but globally it’s a massive statement.’’

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