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US Open: 50 years on from first equal pay triumph

August 31, 2023

Much has changed in the tennis world in the half-century since equal prize money was awarded to men and women for the first time at the 1973 US Open. But the battle for equal pay that Billie Jean King started is ongoing.

Billie Jean King after her speech at Arthur Ashe stadium
Billie Jean King paved the way for equal pay in professional tennis and celebrated the 50th anniversary at the US OpenImage: Jason DeCrow/AP Photo/picture alliance

A rousing applause went through New York's Arthur Ashe Stadium on Tuesday when former US first lady Michelle Obama introduced tennis legend Billie Jean King on the court.

Waving to the crowd with tears in her eyes, the 79-year-old hugged Obama before making her way to the microphone stand in the packed arena. Visibly caught up in emotion, all she managed at first was a big sigh.

King retired from tennis in 1983 after an illustrious career that included winning 12 Grand Slam singles titles. But her most significant victory came off the court. On the opening night of the 2023 tournament, King celebrated the 50th anniversary of the US Open becoming the first sporting event to offer equal prize money to female and male competitors.

1973 was a turning point

This year's final Grand Slam tournament offers a record purse of $65 million (€60 million) and caps off 17 consecutive years with pay equity at all four Grand Slams. King, the woman who "made it all possible," in Obama's words, found herself lost for words in the center of the biggest tennis stadium in the world.

Billie Jean King hitting a forehand at the 1972 US Open
After winning the 1972 US Open, Billie Jean King and fellow women's players threatened to boycott the 1973 event unless women got the same prize money as menImage: Ray Stubblebine/AP Photo/picture alliance

In her tribute, Obama recalled how King, the US Open champion in 1972, allied with her fellow women's tennis players, threatening to boycott the tournament the following year unless women got the same prize money as men. That same summer, it was announced that the women's winner's purse would increase by $15,000 (€13,800), meaning that both men's and women's champions would each receive $25,000 (€23,000).

In 2007, Wimbledon was the last of the Grand Slam tournaments, along with the French Open, to move to equal pay for both genders, 39 years after the open era of tennis began in 1968.

King: 'Our work is far from done'

"Women's tennis is the leader in women's sports," King said during her speech. "But while we celebrate today, our work is far from done."

The work she is referring to was on show in the lead-up tournaments to this year's US Open. The Canadian Open offered a total prize pool of $9.4 million, of which only $2.8 million went to the women's draw. In comparison, the men pocketed $6.6 million despite players from both sexes playing the same amount of sets in the competition.

Since 2021, in even-numbered years, the men's tournament has been held in Montreal, while the women's competition is held in Toronto, and vice versa in odd-numbered years. Some argue that the revenue of the men's tournament brings more spectators through the gates and generates more TV money.

Coco Gauff smiles and lifts the winner's trophy of the 2023 Cincinnati Masters
Cincinnati Masters winner Coco Gauff received less than half the price money of men's champion Novak DjokovicImage: Aaron Doster/AP Photo/picture alliance

Inequality on show

Even some stars of the game, like Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, bought into that narrative. "The stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men's tennis matches," said Djokovic at the 2016 Indian Wells Masters. "I think that's one of the reasons why maybe we should get awarded more."

Nadal made similar remarks at the 2019 Australian Open: "If they sell more tickets than what we sell tickets, they deserve more than us." Both have since backtracked, voicing their support for a union of the men's and women's governing bodies.

A week after the Canadian Open, the discrepancy in prize money was on show again at the Cincinnati Masters, even though the women's and men's draws took place at the same venue, meaning fans paid the same amount of money to watch men's and women's matches.

But yet again, the men's champion Djokovic took home around $1 million (€920,000) in prize money, while his female counterpart Coco Gauff had to settle for roughly $450,000 (€420,000) — less than half. Women's tennis might be making progress, but it is still very much playing catch-up. 

Murray: WTA, ATP 'have to work together"

Former world No. 1  Andy Murray is one of the biggest advocates for equal pay in tennis. Confronted with the disparity in prize money before his first match in Cincinnati, Murray said the governing bodies of tennis — the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), which manages the men's tour, and the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), which manages the women's — have to work together to find a solution.

Andy Murray shows his fist after winning a point at the 2023 US Open
Andy Murray has been a long-time advocate for equal pay in tennisImage: Javier Rojas/ZUMAPRESS/picture alliance

"I always felt like when we're competing at the same event on the same courts, we should be playing for the same prize money," said the former Wimbledon champion. "It is difficult for it ever to become truly equal until the ATP and the WTA sort of actually combine and work together."

In a first step in that direction, the WTA announced in June that all combined 1000- and 500-level events, the sport's top competitions outside the Grand Slams, will offer equal prize money by 2027. The non-combined tournaments will do so by 2033.

If everything goes to plan, Billie Jean King will be 89 years old by the time prize money in professional tennis will be evenly distributed between men and women. Half a century after the tennis champion's activism won equal pay for women at the 1973 US Open, she still leads a fight for equity far from done.

Before leaving the stage on Tuesday, King finished her speech with a quote from American civil rights activist Coretta Scott King: "Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it, and you win it in every generation."

Edited by: James Thorogood