Tennis has evolved into a major international sport and a multi-billion dollar industry. It’s also one of the very few and select sports where male and female players can potentially earn the same amount. However, this wasn’t always the case. Much like any other sport, tennis has a long history, and while it’s known globally today, it didn’t use to be.
When people hear the word tennis, they immediately think of plenty, specialized, modern equipment. As a matter of fact, the equipment that tennis uses today is still, technically, the same as when the sport was founded. The earliest known days of tennis were played in monastery courtyards in France, where players used their hands instead of racquets (imagine using your hand now). The tennis we all know and love today actually began in Britain, during the mid-19th century, and was called ‘lawn tennis’. It was also very popular with women back then who would play in mixed doubles – a staple of the sport – and in a bustle skirt. The doubles would survive, the long bustle skirt, not so much.
One of the Grand Slams, Wimbledon, began its life as a mere fundraiser. The first-ever Ladies’ Championship at the tournament took place in 1884 with Maud Watson being the first champion. How much did she earn? 20 guineas. When compared to today’s prize money of £1.8 million, one can say that even the prize pool for the sport has come a long way.
However, besides the laughable prize, there was a takeaway: during the tournament, one competitor fainted due to the extreme heat. The culprit wasn’t just the heat but also (you guessed it) the long skirts and corsets that they were expected to wear. This would later be used to show that women were too weak to play five-set matches, but it didn’t affect what women can and can’t wear when playing the sport.
Tennis then found its way (much like a lot of things) to the United States and not only was it famous with women since it was first introduced, but it was actually introduced by Mary Ewing Outerbridge – a woman (surprise, surprise). The first tennis match played in the US between two women was between Mary and her sister, Laura, on Staten Island in 1874. Tennis was also played in mixed doubles – similar to that in Britain (and also in those bustle skirts).
Tennis continued to evolve since then (and yes, the bustle skirt was finally ruled out) but a greater problem would later reveal itself: colour (as in a person’s race). The sport was heavily played by whites, and it wasn’t until Althea Gibson broke that stereotype. She was the first black woman to win a Grand Slam when she won the French Open of 1956. Overall, she would win 11 Grand Slam tournaments before becoming a professional golfer. Then, the Open Era took place. In 1968, the Grand Slam tournaments were opened up to both pros and amateurs which opened more avenues for female players. As the years went by, that problem solved itself, but just like before, a new one emerged: the gender pay gap.
However, after years and years of women advocating for equal prize money, the Wimbledon of 2008 became the first Grand Slam to equalize men and women’s prize money. It was thanks to players such as Venus Williams and the WTA. So, where does that leave tennis today? Well, for one, women can earn as much as men – without the corsets.
Words: Carlos Corpus