Even the casual tennis fan knows that the term “deuce” means that the score is 40–40, and either player needs two points to win the game. At the French Open, the term is the more elegant “egalite,” which elevates the concept with an essential component of the goals of the French Revolution: equality. Well there was much egalite at the recent U.S. Open, an end of summer New York City ritual that produced scintillating matches on both sides and a 50th anniversary celebration of equal pay for women. Of course the entire complex in Flushing Meadows is named in honor of Billie Jean King, as much for her brilliant performances on the court as for her leadership role in the battle to achieve equal pay for women.
This year’s event was headlined by the ascension of the precocious 19 year old Coco Gauff as the new Queen of the courts, a role that has been predestined since her remarkable run in the Junior tour began at the age of 12. On the men’s side, Novak Djokovic continued to solidify his claim as the greatest player of all time by cooly cruising to his 24th Grand Slam title. He will remain there at least until we see whether another relative child, 20 year old Carlos Alcazar, is ready to assume the throne or is just another talented pretender.
But women in sports have never had it easy. The United States has led the way for opportunity through Title IX, a piece of legislation that forced colleges and other institutions to provide equal educational resources to women but which has had its most visible impact on sports. The most notable example of its success is the dominance of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, the four-time World Cup champion. But even after all its on-field accomplishments, relative financial equality with the far less successful men’s side came only after resorting to the All American institution of litigation led to much more equitable arrangement.
The fact that the USWNT fell in an early round of this year’s tournament should not be shocking in retrospect as other countries have clearly caught up by backing their teams both financially and structurally, erasing the U.S. advantage and resulting in a level playing field in both talent and experience. Not least a factor in contributing to this development has been the creation of European domestic leagues with women’s sides supported by the world’s most powerful and richest teams including Barcelona, Man City and Lyons.
But the gains have not come easily. There is no greater example than the indignities suffered by this year’s champion, Spain, whose success came despite testosterone-driven misogyny in a traditionally male-dominated society. We all are well aware of The Kiss bestowed on star player Jennifer Hermoso by the now-deposed Luis Rubiales, the head of the Spanish Soccer Federation in the exuberance of its post-victory celebration of its victory over England. But the brash act of Rubiales was merely the tip of the iceberg as it led to the revelation of brutish behavior including an intolerable training environment and infantile bed checks forced the resignation of much despised coach Jorge Vilda. Even then, Rubiales retained shocking support throughout the system to retain his role until a @MeToo type movement forced his ouster.
But the experience of the Spanish players is not an exception. Women’s soccer has only recently become not only acceptable but even legal in England, the self-proclaimed “Birthplace of Football,” and many traditionally male-centered societies including Italy, Germany and France have only reluctantly joined the bandwagon of support for the women’s game. Eastern Europe remains an outlier in the trend towards such acceptance. And who can forget the suggestion of the FIFA President Seth Blatter that women’s soccer could become more popular if the players wore “tighter shorts?”
So the fight continues for women in sports. The NCAA has moved grudgingly to address the disparities of its support for the men’s and women’s March Madness tournaments in college basketball. But anyone who watched Caitlyn Clark and her Iowa Hawkeyes and this year’s champion LSU Tigers led by Angel Reese not to mention any game in the annual women’s softball tournament have to concede that they are every bit the equal of their male counterparts in competitive and entertainment value.
But tennis continues to lead the way as an example to other sports. The biggest issue at this year’s Open was the political tension between Ukrainian and Russian players caused by Putin’s senseless war where the sides are decidedly not equal. Perhaps it is time to let the women solve that situation. I suggest we start by bringing Billie Jean King to the negotiating table.