For decades, tennis has been one of athletics' greatest gender equalizers.
Women tennis players win the same prize money as their male counterparts. Their athletic achievements rival the men, and they earn more money, endorsements, and notoriety than all other female athletes.
So when the chief executive of the Indian Wells tournament, Raymond Moore, said women tennis players ride on the "coattails of the men," it rightfully turned some heads.
"They don't make any decisions and they are lucky. They are very, very lucky. If I was a lady player, I'd go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport. They really have," Moore said in a press conference just before Victoria Azarenka beat Serena Williams in an exciting upset at his tournament.
"I think the WTA have a handful — not just one or two — but they have a handful of very attractive prospects that can assume the mantle. … They have a lot of very attractive players. And the standard in ladies tennis has improved unbelievably," Moore continued, clarifying that meant "attractive" both physically and competitively.
Moore later apologized for his remarks, noting that they were "in extremely poor taste and erroneous."
For those in the tennis world, Moore's statements set the sport back decades. The Women's Tennis Association responded with disappointment and alarm, tweeting a response.
For first-ranked player Serena Williams, however, it was confusion. She has long been the most recognizable and talented female tennis player in the world, and her experience with fans and other athletes did not match Moore's comments.
"I don't think any woman should be down on their knees thanking anybody like that," Williams told reporters. "I think Venus, myself, a number of players — if I could tell you every day how many people say they don't watch tennis unless they're watching myself or my sister — I couldn't even bring up that number.
"So I don't think that is a very accurate statement. I think there are a lot of women out there who are very exciting to watch. I think there are a lot of men out there who are exciting to watch. I think it definitely goes both ways."
Moore's comments sparked a debate on equal pay
But Moore's apology came too late for Novak Djokovic, the world's first-ranked men's singles tennis player, who fanned the flames by making the case for men's pay — that it should be more than the women's:
Women deserve respect and admiration for what they are doing … I understand how much power and energy WTA and all the advocates for equal prize money have invested in order to reach that.
On the other hand I think that our men’s tennis world, ATP world, should fight for more because the stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men’s tennis matches. I think that’s one of the reasons why maybe we should get awarded more. Women should fight for what they think they deserve and we should fight for what we think we deserve.
Their bodies are much different to men’s bodies. They have to go through a lot of different things that we don’t have to go through. You know, the hormones and different stuff, we don’t need to go into details.
Women's hormones aside, Djokovic's argument, while often true for a lot of sports, holds less weight with tennis, which garners media and spectator attention for both male and female players.
Quartz graphed the ranked top earners in tennis, comparing men and women's wages:
In 2014, three female tennis players made Forbes's list of 100 Highest-Paid Athletes, along with three male tennis players, mainly because of the sport's popularity. In 2015, two women (Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams) made the list.
According to reporting from Quartz, a lot of this has to do with how the games are set up equally:
Men and women play the biggest tennis tournaments simultaneously, and are given the same amount of attention by broadcasters and organizers. Today, just as many women’s matches are televised as men’s. Women play on the main courts, just as men do. At the Wimbledon opening yesterday, the women’s number two, Li Na, played her match on Centre Court before the top men’s player, Novak Djokovic. Li was given precedence over Grigor Dimitrov—one of the most exciting new players in the men’s game—who was relegated to the less prestigious Court 1.