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2007: After fighting for pay equity at Wimbledon, Venus Williams became the first woman to collect an equal-sized champion’s check
Equal prize money may seem simple and logical and fair to most of us now, but it took nearly 40 years for the women to achieve that parity. And it took Venus’ stubborn efforts to finally make equal pay at the sport’s signature event a reality.
Published Jun 21, 2022
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Centre Court turns 100 this year. During that time, this bastion of propriety and tradition has also borne witness to a century’s worth of progress and tennis democratization.
For its centennial, we look back at 10 of its most historic and sport-changing matches.
Venus Williams d. Marion Bartoli 6-4, 6-1
2007 Wimbledon Women’s Final
Our list of historic Centre Court matches has included two—Budge vs. Cramm in 1937; Borg vs. McEnroe in 1980—that rank among the greatest ever played in any stadium. Venus Williams’ one-sided win over surprise finalist Marion Bartoli in 2007, on the other hand, was not among the most memorable or competitive Wimbledon finals. The exciting contests of the women’s event that year had come earlier, when Justine Henin beat Venus’s sister Serena in three sets in the quarterfinals, before being run out of the tournament in the semifinals by an unplayable Bartoli.
On the final Saturday, as the 23rd-seeded Williams and the 18th-seeded Bartoli warmed up for the championship match, The Guardian began its live blog on a less-than-enthusiastic note: “Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to this, the lowest-ranked Wimbledon final in the Open era.”
Whatever her ranking was at the time, Williams thoroughly earned her fourth Wimbledon crown. After scraping through two early matches 7-5 in the third, she didn’t drop a set in her final four rounds; included in that run was a 6-1, 6-3 win over No. 2 seed Maria Sharapova. But it was what Williams did off the court at Wimbledon, that year and in preceding years, that made her title historic.
“I was the first woman who could go into the [Wimbledon] finals focusing entirely on her game, instead of thinking, ‘Hey, I’m not equal here,’” Williams would later remember.
That’s because, for the first time since Wimbledon began awarding prize money in 1968, the women earned the same amount as the men. Williams took home 700,000 pounds for her win on Saturday; the next day Roger Federer took home 700,000 for his. That may seem simple and logical and fair to most of us now, but it took nearly 40 years for the women to achieve that parity. And it took Venus’ stubborn efforts to finally make equal pay at the sport’s signature event a reality.
The US Open had been on board since 1973, when pressure from Billie Jean King and the recently formed WTA, as well as a cash supplement from Ban deodorant, led tournament organizers to offer a $25,000 purse for each singles draw. The Australian Open eventually followed suit—it only took 28 years—in 2001. That left Roland Garros and Wimbledon as the two holdouts.
In defense of its stance, Wimbledon cited the fact that the men play best-of-five and the women best-of-three, and that television audiences in the U.K. were higher for the men (the presence of Tim Henman, the biggest British tennis star at the time, may have had something to do with that).
By the mid-aughts, though, the prize-money difference between men and women had narrowed enough that it was hard to see it as anything other than a symbolic gesture in favor of the men. In 2005, the men’s singles winner walked away with 630,000 pounds, the women’s with 600,000.
The message I like to convey to women and girls across the globe is that there is no glass ceiling. My fear is that Wimbledon is loudly and clearly sending the opposite message. Venus Williams, Times of London
Nothing less than full equality would do for Venus, a household-name athlete who had long commanded endorsement fees that were in the same stratosphere as the top men. The night before she played and won the 2005 Wimbledon final over Lindsay Davenport, Venus spoke before the Grand Slam committee and laid out her case for equal pay. When nothing changed in 2006, she followed up with a column in the Times of London.
“The message I like to convey to women and girls across the globe is that there is no glass ceiling,” Williams wrote. “My fear is that Wimbledon is loudly and clearly sending the opposite message.”
Venus’s words finally carried the day. The following February, Wimbledon announced it would offer equal prize money for the first time.
“The time is right to bring this subject to a logical conclusion and eliminate the difference,” All England Club chairman Tim Phillips said in announcing the policy change. “We believe our decision to offer equal prize money provides a boost for the game as a whole and recognizes the enormous contribution that women players make to the game and to Wimbledon.”
Roland Garros followed Wimbledon’s lead a month later. The tournament’s chief officer at the time, Christian Bimes, referenced Venus’s speech as a turning point.
“The greatest tournament in the world has reached an even greater height today,” Williams said after Wimbledon’s announcement. “I applaud today’s decision, which recognizes the value of women’s tennis.”
Was it fate that Venus, a long shot as the No. 23 seed, would become the first woman to claim an equal-size winner’s check? It was certainly poetic justice. After watching Venus and Serena win a combined 12 Wimbledon singles titles over the course of this century, only the terminally blinkered would continue to claim that they, and their WTA colleagues, don’t deserve just as much as the men.