Trailblazers: A History of Grit and Perseverance
It was more than 100 years ago when the 19th Amendment was ratified, giving
women in the United States the right to vote. And yet, 80 years later, at the turn of the 21st Century, the All England Club was paying the Wimbledon men’s champion more than the women’s.
In 2000, Pete Sampras defeated Patrick Rafter in the final and took home 477,500 pounds. Venus Williams, only 20, won her first Grand Slam singles title, besting defending champion Lindsay Davenport. She got 430,000 pounds. The All England Club, citing surveys, argued that more spectators said they came to see the men play, also referencing they played best-of-five-set matches, as opposed to best-of-three.
Williams defended her title in 2001, and four years later again reached the 2005 final against Davenport. On the evening before that concluding match, Williams and WTA Tour CEO and Chairman Larry Scott attended a meeting of the Grand Slam Committee. Like Billie Jean King, some three decades before, Williams made a passionate plea for equal pay. As a role model for girls and young women, she liked to say there was no glass ceiling -- but Wimbledon, she insisted, was sending the opposite message.
“Venus made her point in very articulate fashion,” Scott said afterward. “It had to leave a very meaningful impression on everyone there. You couldn’t just write it off as suits arguing on the players’ behalf. There was no doubt it was a heartfelt position.”
In 2006, Venus partnered with the WTA and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and led a campaign to promote gender equity in sports. Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair threw his support behind the initiative. Finally, in February of 2007, All England Club Chairman Tony Phillips announced that Wimbledon would offer equal pay to men and women. One month later, saying Williams’ involvement was the tipping point, the French Open followed suit.
“The time is right to bring this subject to a logical conclusion and eliminate the difference,” Philips said. “We hope it will also encourage girls who want a career in sport to choose tennis as their best option.”
Venus was ecstatic. “The greatest tournament in the world has reached an even greater height today,” she said. “I applaud today’s decision, which recognizes the value of women’s tennis.”
In 2007, Venus defeated Marion Bartoli in the Wimbledon final -- and was, appropriately, the first woman to collect the same check (700,000 pounds) as her male counterpart.
“I had the chance to meet Arthur Ashe and be part of the work he did fighting apartheid in South Africa,” Scott has said. “Then getting to know Billie Jean King and seeing the impact she’s had beyond her sport as a social activist and entrepreneur and pioneer.
“My sense is, over time, she will have a place in the history books in terms of equality for women and the role that athletes can play to effect social and political change in the world. I think Venus has the opportunity to go down in history as an athlete of that ilk, who had an impact beyond their sport.”