This is a sponsored post by Keith Prowse, one of the only two tour operators who provide official tennis hospitality packages at Wimbledon.
The earliest forms of tennis were played on monastery courtyards in France, with players using their hands instead of racquets. It has since evolved into the game which is still played today.
Tennis as we know it originated in the 19th century in Britain and was referred to as “Lawn tennis”. The first Ladies’ Championship at the prestigious Wimbledon tournament was held in 1884, with Maud Watson as the first victor.
Though the Open Era in 1968, women were given more opportunities. However, major gaps persisted between how much men and women were paid in terms of prize money – until 1973, when the US Open awarded equal prize money to both males and females.
In 2007, Wimbledon became the last Grand Slam to award equal prize money, in large part due to pressure from both the Women’s Tennis Association and prominent tennis stars including Venus Williams. Despite this, some have argued that women should not be awarded the same prize money as men, as they attract smaller crowds.
Sadly, women’s achievements are often overlooked in tennis, with British player Andy Murray correcting reporters throughout the years who have ignored the accolades of female players. Most recently, in 2017, he corrected a reporter who declared that Sam Querrey was the ‘first American player to reach the semifinal of a Slam since 2009’.
Murray intervened to point out that this statement was only true of male players – with Americans Serena and Venus Williams, Coco Vandeweghe and Madison Keys all having reached Grand Slam semifinals since 2009. It’s precisely this type of casual disregard that makes organisations such as the WTA so necessary, to battle for equality in the sport.
The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) was founded in 1973 by the ‘original nine’, including iconic player Billie Jean King. King won the first Open Era Wimbledon Championships alongside Rod Laver, who earned £2000 in prize money to King’s £750 (wtatennis.com). She also became the first woman to cross the six-figure mark in season earnings in 1971 at the Virginia Slims series. Unequal prize money was just one factor – opportunities for men in tennis far outweighed those for women.
The WTA was created to give women a better future in tennis and tackle many of the inequalities female players faced. In 1974, they signed the first television broadcast contract in the history of the organization, with US network CBS. Since that time, women have worked tirelessly to make their mark on the male-dominated sports industry;
- During the 1970s and 80s, American player Chris Evert dominated tennis, winning 18 Grand Slam singles championships and three doubles titles, earning the year-end ranking of No. 1 in 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1980, and 1981. Her performance has earned her recognition as one of the greatest female athletes of all time.
- During 1980, 250 women were playing tennis professionally across the world in a tour consisting of 47 global events, offering a total $7.2 million in prize money.
- In 1982, Martina Navratilova became the first woman to earn over $1 million in a season – going on to pass $10 million just four years later.
- 1997 – Martina Hingis becomes the fastest player ever to win $1 million in a season and a day later became the youngest-ever world No.1 (for men and women).
- 2002 – The Williams sisters become No.1 players in the world, first Venus in February, then Serena in July.
- 2010 – 40 years on from Virginia Slims event at Houston in September 1970, prize money has increased to $85 million.
The Williams sisters are arguably two of the most recognizable names in tennis. Both sisters are widely successful, together and individually. Serena Williams has a record breaking 23 Grand Slams, while Venus has won 7. Serena has earned $84.5 million – more than any female tennis player in history. Both women are undeniably talented, but there were a number of historical female players before them who also deserve solid recognition, including Suzanne Lenglen, Althea Gibson and Steffi Graf.
Lenglen was a French player dubbed as the first major female tennis star and to this day she is revered as one the best players in tennis history. She quickly became tennis’ biggest attraction, driving both fans and media to her matches. Between 1914-1926, she won a total of 31 championship titles, including two French Grand Slams, six Wimbledon Grand Slams, one US Open and two gold medals at the 1920 Summer Olympics. In 1997, the second court at the Roland Garros Stadium, site of the French Open, was renamed Court Suzanne Lenglen in her honor. Furthermore, the trophy awarded to the winner of the Women’s Singles competition at the French Open is the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. In 1978, Lenglen was inducted into the “International Tennis Hall of Fame”.
Althea Gibson dominated tennis in the 1950s, as she was the first African-American ever to win a Grand Slam title in 1956. She was the first black athlete to cross the color line of international tennis, at a time when racism and prejudice were widespread in sports and in society. “Her road to success was a challenging one,” states Billie Jean King, “but I never saw her back down.” She won 11 Grand Slam tournaments and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971, into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1974 and into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1980.
Steffi Graf was a widely successful German player. At the age of 13 she became the second youngest player ever to earn an international ranking. In 1987, she won her first Grand Slam event at the French Open. In 1988, she became the third woman to win all four Grand Slam tournaments in one calendar year, as well as winning gold at the Olympics. Overall, Graf has won 22 Grand Slams – the second most in the Open Era after Serena Williams.
Moving forwards, the media, the fans and the tennis industry must do better in recognising the achievements of women as players, as athletes, as humans, as equals.
We have come so far since the start of tennis and of tournaments such as Wimbledon, but we have a long way to go. When Wimbledon 2019 begins, remember to enjoy the Wimbledon hospitality but be vocal in support, celebratory with the continued achievements of female players and take your chance to be part of history.