I was finally able to watch some Wimbledon matches today. (This is the worst time of year to be without cable.) I love this tournament, mostly because I love everything British. I love the fact that it’s played on grass, even though serve-and-volley tennis isn’t really played there anymore. There is lots of strawberry eating. One of it’s main colors is purple. It just hits all the right buttons.
But the Championships make it very clear that it does not love me back.
This became clear when Venus Williams basically launched a one-person campaign to be awarded equal prize money. She wrote in 2006:
I’m disappointed not for myself but for all of my fellow women players who have struggled so hard to get here and who, just like the men, give their all on the courts of SW19. I’m disappointed for the great legends of the game, such as Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, who have never stopped fighting for equality. And disappointed that the home of tennis is sending a message to women across the world that we are inferior.
And why shouldn’t she be disappointed? These women are top athletes. They are entertainers. I, personally, get the same enjoyment from watching Venus and Serena as I get from watching Nadal and Federer. Plus, in 2006, the pay differential was £30,000 – men received £655,000 and the women received £625,000. Really? That is just a difference for the sake of difference.
In 2007, Wimbledon relented and is now awarding equal prize money to men and women. But the tournament is still not without its prejudices.
It seems like every year, sports commentators have to point out that there hasn’t been a British Wimbledon singles champion since Fred Perry won it in 1936. This is simply a false statement. In fact, there hasn’t been a Wimbledon single champion since 1977 when Virginia Wade won the women singles title. However, she is rarely mentioned.
I thought for a while it might just be an American thing. After all, I imagine that it wouldn’t matter too much to the nation if a man or a woman won the singles title, as long as they won. (Doubles has to deal with its own prejudice in the tennis world, I’m afraid.) But then I got a chance to visit the All England Club (which, by the way, was the most disappointing trip to Wimbledon since Jana Novotna’s 1993 final against Steffi Graf) that I realized just how deep this Perry pathology ran.
I should mention right up front that, on that particular day, I was already in a foul mood. I had to take 4 trains from Oxford to reach SW19, then I almost got hit by a car that sped through the center of a mini-roundabout (which, I’m pretty sure is not the appropriate way to use a roundabout), only to find that, oh yeah! Wimbledon is a private club, and I can’t just walk around Centre Court like a ninny. Nor can I walk around anywhere else, for that matter. It was basically the gift shop and the museum for me. But I had made my pilgrimage and I was intent on making the most of it.
I moseyed on down to the museum like I knew what I was doing. (The museum, as an aside, is not as big or robust as I had hoped, further adding to my frustration.) I looked forward to looking at some exhibits on those Wimbledon legends: John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, Pete Sampras, Staffi Graf, and on and on. And I found most of this. But what I didn’t expect was an entire room devoted to…you guessed it! Fred Perry.
Not that he doesn’t deserve a whole room, I guess. I don’t have a lot of strong opinions about him. But I was appalled to see not one mention of Virginia Wade.
As I think back on this, I’m second-guessing myself. How could there have been no mention of Virginia Wade? The last British Wimbledon single champion. There must have been a mention. And maybe there was. But what there was not was an entire room devoted to her career. There was not a shrine to her win. And it left me feeling like sad, like even if I achieve greatness in some field, I won’t be taken seriously. And if I felt that way as a 25 year old law student on a summer abroad trip to Oxford, I can’t image what a young tennis prodigy must feel when she tours the museum.
The Guardian’s “In Focus” podcast a couple of weeks ago had a good discussion on the problems facing British tennis. But, as someone looking in from the outside, I can’t help but wonder if there is a gender component to this, as well. If we are constantly telling girls that their achievements will not be valued as much as their brother’s, we’re selling them short, and the UK may never find its next Virginia Wade. And that’s at least as worthy of pursuing as its next Fred Perry.
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