LONDON — It wasn’t until 2007 that Wimbledon became the last of the four tennis Grand Slams to award equal prize money to women and men. Women are still waiting on equal playing time in the tournament’s biggest stadiums.
At Wimbledon this year, women got just 38 percent of the assignments to Centre Court and No. 1 Court (which is, confusingly, the second-biggest court) through Monday, including just 39 percent on Centre Court. That rate is different from the other Grand Slams. At the most recent editions of the Australian Open, French Open and U.S. Open, schedulers maintained balance between men’s and women’s singles on prime courts, at least by number of matches. At each event, when they were competing with men for prime court assignments, the women got between 49 percent and 54 percent of matches on the top two courts — including at least half the matches on the biggest court.1
Who gets on which court is up to tournament schedulers. The top players want to play on a Grand Slam’s two main courts, which each have more than 10,000 seats. That’s where the most fans get to watch them and where journalists and broadcasters focus their attention. For the first week and a half or so of each two-week event, organizers must decide how to allocate that valuable real estate to matches from the men’s and women’s singles competitions.
Counting matches understates the extent to which men’s tennis has hogged the spotlight at Wimbledon this year. Men’s matches, on average, take longer because men play best-of-five-sets while women play best-of-three at Slams. As a result, women got just 28 percent of match time on the top two courts at Wimbledon, compared with 39 percent to 42 percent at the other three majors.
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Wimbledon’s scheduling isn’t just a matter of gender equality. It’s also about logistics. The scheduling can backfire on men. They don’t want to have to change courts mid-match or, worse, finish a match on what should be their day off. That’s more likely when they’re playing the second men’s match in a day on a court without lights, since as we’ve seen, men’s matches, on average, are longer than women’s. On three successive days of play this year, the second men’s match on No. 1 Court went five sets and had to be suspended or moved because of darkness.
No. 1 Serena Williams and former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki criticized the scheduling in media conferences here. “The women really haven’t gotten the opportunity here to play on the big courts,” Wozniacki said. She pointed out that on most days this year when men and women were both playing, No. 1 Court and Centre Court each had only one women’s match. (Men were less critical: Roger Federer said of the schedulers, “of course, they would try to be fair,” and Gilles Simon said, “I don’t see any big problems about the scheduling.”)
Williams and Wozniacki have less to complain about than some of their peers, though: On days when she was competing with men for court time, Williams was on Centre for three of her four matches and on No. 1 for the other one. Wozniacki got one match on each of the two big courts.
Yet former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, who has two major titles to Wozniacki’s none, didn’t get on the two biggest courts in any of her first four matches. Neither did Lucie Safarova, the sixth-ranked woman and French Open finalist, in her four singles matches. Serena Williams’s sister Venus Williams, a five-time champ here, played three matches off the big two courts before finally getting to Centre — against Serena.
A spokesman for the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, which hosts and runs Wimbledon, declined to comment beyond providing the club’s general position on order of play. “The major marquee players will normally be scheduled on the stadium courts with Centre Court and then No.1 Court seeing the leading names,” the club said in the statement. “This is expected by both the paying public and TV audiences alike.”
Without further comment, it’s hard to know how the club determines who the major marquee players are.
One factor I thought might have driven the unbalanced scheduling is the high-profile upsets in the women’s tournament, which might have left fewer marquee women available to feature.
I checked, and that doesn’t seem to be the case, at least using several possible definitions of “marquee players.” Nine women who’d won Grand Slam titles (with a combined 41 major titles, 13 of them at Wimbledon) competed in singles at Wimbledon, compared with seven men with Grand Slam victories (46 majors, 13 of them at Wimbledon). The women major winners had 27 matches through this Monday. Their male counterparts had just 23 matches. Just 44 percent of these marquee women’s matches made it onto Centre or No. 1 — barely half the proportion of the men’s matches, with 87 percent. Add in former No. 1s and top 10 seeds, and the picture is even worse: The top women made it onto the top two courts 35 percent of the time, while the top men did 74 percent of the time.
Simon and other male players have argued that women should get less prize money than men because, according to them, the men’s game is more popular than the women’s. With Wimbledon’s scheduling this year, the women have had half the opportunity to gain an audience and a fan base.