Tennis needs to do more to show that women’s sport deserves greater exposure

The women’s game is riddled with an unprecedented level of mediocrity, and needs to change.

Last night, Maria Sharapova secured her place in the third round of the Australian Open.

There is nothing unusual about seeing the 25-year-old accomplish such a feat in itself. In fact, it is the seventh time in 11 years that the Russian has safely negotiated her first two games at Melbourne Park.

However, consider this.

In her opening matches, the four-time Grand Slam champion dispatched Olga Puchkova and Misaki Doi in a combined time of less than two hours and without the loss of a single game.

The lay tennis fan would be excused for wondering if either Puchkova or Doi were novices - young players enjoying a first taste of the big time.

Alas, no. Depressingly, both the 21-year-old Doi and 25-year-old Puchkova are currently operating around the world’s top 100 and have well over ten years professional experience between them.

This sort of competitive imbalance in women’s tennis is no longer surprising nor particularly newsworthy, but as part of a tour that comprises 1,200 ranked places, it is hard to fathom that there are 1,100 professional players inferior to the two unable to capture a single game against Sharapova.

Last summer, the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation suggested that as little as three hours in 72 broadcast on Sky Sports one weekend was devoted to women’s sport.

The BBC have made a concerted effort to try and bring stories concerning female sports stars to the top of their agenda. However, most of these have been relating to perceived inequalities and injustices in funding and exposure - actual sports news has been pretty much the sole preserve of Olympic and tennis stars.

Ten years ago next week, Serena Williams secured her first Australian Open title and with it completed the "Serena Slam" of all four major tennis crowns.

Today, Williams remains at the forefront of the women’s game, despite being beset by injury, misfortune and controversy; younger, fresher foes have been unable to topple her.

This supremacy need not necessarily be a negative thing - Roger Federer’s time at the top has coincided almost exactly with that of the younger Williams sister and there are no suggestions that his successes are bad for the sport.

The two sides of the sport have exchanged supremacy at different points over the last 40 years, however, with the men’s game now perhaps stronger than it ever has been, the women’s game is riddled with an unprecedented level of mediocrity and a major identity crisis.

Style has replaced substance as, to name but a few, Agnieszka Radwańska, Caroline Wozniacki and Dinara Safina have all cashed in on high rankings without ever looking like breaking their Grand Slam drought, attracting scorn as a result.

Martina Hingis, herself a serial winner from the age of 14, has attacked regulations preventing younger players indulging in more WTA tour events in their early teens - Hingis suggesting that this limitation only serves to stunt growth and ensure that older players rule the roost for longer.

Williams, Sharapova and a string of one-off older champions have dominated the roll of honour in recent years - Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova being the only notable exceptions to this worrying trend.   

This is particularly pertinent when discussing Williams Jr. The 31-year-old has dramatically reduced her playing schedule over the last four years, limiting herself to no more than a handful of events outside of Grand Slams.

Leaving the younger set to squabble over the considerably less popular regular events on the WTA tour, the American, injury permitting, returns to decimate the field on her way to more limelight when the circus comes to town.

The perceived contempt with which Williams treats low importance events on the tour is legendary, but in truth there is no real incentive for the 15-time Slam winner to expand her horizons.  

This is not an argument about the merits of offering male and female players the same prize-money for differing levels of work - a concept that has always irked many on the ATP tour - however, with all the financial riches in tennis, it is perhaps a little dispiriting to look elsewhere in the sports world and see top level female athletes bobbing around the breadline when deeply mediocre tennis players are able to make a very comfortable living.

In truth, there are only four opportunities each year to push claims for greater exposure and, outside of a major year in athletics, it is fair to suggest that these weeks are crucial if a broadcaster is to decide to take a punt on other areas of female-only competition.

That said, financial stress is not the sole preserve of women’s sport. Snooker’s golden child Judd Trump complained in an interview with the Daily Telegraph last week that there simply wasn’t enough money in his sport for all of the top players to make a sustainable living.

Whereas Trump could do with a lesson in microeconomics, it isn’t hard to understand those who believe women’s tennis to be a rare exception to a rule whereby their hefty financial recompense does not mirror contribution to their sport.

Barry Hearn, the sports promoting supremo, is doing his best to shake up the archaic snooker calendar and disrupt the established order to make a generally fringe sport more appealing to the masses.

Women’s tennis, and the bloated-gravy train that it has become, must be treated in the same way. 

The whole tennis world needs to acknowledge the malaise; else, if a revolution is not forthcoming, you have to fear that the shot at readjusting the broadcast imbalance between the sexes will slide long.

Serena Williams serving during her first round match at the 2013 Australian Open. Photograph: Getty Images

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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.