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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle