It's come to this: Even John McEnroe, that enlightened man of the '70s, says the women players are selling the tickets in tennis, so I'd just like to ask a couple of questions: When is the tennis establishment going to find out?
The women are the main event. They play the best game, have the best personalities, the biggest names, the best soap operas.So why are women's champions being paid less money than the men's champions in three of the four Grand Slam events? For that matter, why do the women play fewer sets than the men in the Grand Slam events?
Tennis is in the entertainment business, and the last time anybody checked that meant giving the biggest stars the most scenes and the most money. The women get neither in tennis' biggest events.
Can you name five of the top male tennis players (and the senior set -- McEnroe, Connors, Borg, etc. -- doesn't count; you're living in the past)? After Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, who have you got? Andrei Medvedev, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Gustavo Kuerten, Goran Ivanisevic. Marcelo Rios. Whatever. Is this tennis or a John LeCarre novel? How many would you recognize on the street?
Now name some women's stars. That's easy. Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis, Anna Kournikova, Serena and Venus Williams, Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles.
The women are the real show. They just don't get treated like it. The men's Wimbledon champion will be paid $728,000; the women's champ $655,200. At the Australian Open, it's $722,000 to $680,000. The French Open pays the men's winner $38,000 more than the women's winner.
You've got to love the explanation by Tim Henman (by way of introduction, he's one of those male players you should know). He says the men deserve more money than the women because they play five sets and the women play three. Brilliant. Tim, the women play three sets because nobody lets them play five and because Grand Slam events are stuck in the 1930s, when women played in dresses and people thought they didn't have enough stamina to run around the block, probably because they would suffocate in their corsets. Somehow it's gone unnoticed that women run marathons and swim the English Channel.
But the best explanation came recently from a Wimbledon official who said the pay difference is because the women don't "draw as much interest as the men."
What game is he watching? Pro basketball? If it's so interesting, why is HBO devoting 70 percent of its Wimbledon coverage to the women? The men's game is boring. It's slam, bam, thank you, ma'am. Blink and you miss a couple of points. The women have long rallies and more shots. Their game doesn't consist of one big serve and a couple of cannon shots.
"The modern women are increasingly fit and trained, which makes them more and more preferable to watch than the men," says Georgina Clark, head of the Women's Tennis Association. "I truly wasn't impressed with the men's final at Wimbledon last year between Sampras and Ivanisevic. The longest rally was about five shots."
Seven years ago Richard Krajicek described women's tennis players as "lazy, fat pigs." Today, poor Richard probably would not use those words to describe Kournikova, the tennis pinup, or the twin amazons, Venus and Serena, or Graf. If Richard called Venus a pig, he'd get a fat lip.
This is not about women's issues; this is about entertainment and sports. No one wants to admit it, but the men's and women's games are not equal. Some women's sports -- gymnastics, figure skating -- just sell better than the men's and vice versa -- basketball, hockey, golf.
Tennis can go either way, but at the moment the women are vastly more interesting than the men. Not only is their game better to watch, but they've got everything else that sells to the public.
"The fact is that fans buy tickets to watch great tennis played by great playing personalities competing for titles in great events," McEnroe wrote recently. "And the women are selling the tickets."
The top players in men's tennis are as exciting as a bowl of oatmeal. The women's players are intense and driven, and they bring it with sass.
"The women's game has a nice mix at the moment of quality tennis players and interesting personalities," says Clark.
Well, "nice" might not be quite the right word. Martina Hingis referred to a muscular, gay French player as "half a man," threw a tantrum at the French Open and said 30-year-old Jana Novotna was too old and slow, which ruined a nice doubles team. Novotna called Hingis stupid. Meanwhile, Steffi Graf dates a racecar driver, models swim suits and is glad her dad is out of jail. Seles got stabbed in the back a few years ago by a nutty fan who was smitten by Graf. Kournikova may or may not be a great player, but nobody in the male audience gives a rip. Let's just say she's not the ugliest player ever to pick up a racquet. If they ever have a contest for tantrums, it will come down to a duel between the Williamses and Hingis.
No wonder everyone's watching the women.