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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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