Okay, so I just got finished watching the “Venus VS.” documentary on Venus Williams and her role in the fight for equal prize money at Wimbledon. It is part of a documentary series on ESPN focusing on women and sports, which I am very excited about. Filmmaking, Venus Williams, and equality for women are three of my favorite topics in the world.
I didn’t have an advance screener or anything, and I don’t have TiVo, but I tried to take notes as I was watching so I could share my favorite moments of the film with you guys, because I think that this subject matter is worth discussing further.
(Full disclaimer: All of the quotes below are summaries since I couldn’t record the documentary or rewind, and I am the slowest transcriber in the history of transcribing.)
1. The Backstory.
The film starts out not only with background about Venus and Serena, but with background on the WTA Tour as a whole. It shows Billie Jean King winning the first Wimbledon of the Open Era in 1968. The stadium is packed, everyone is enthralled. And yet, Rod Laver gets 2,000 pounds for winning. Billie Jean King gets 750 pounds.
The U.S. Open started having equal prize money in 1973. In 1999, when the news footage in the documentary starts, the U.S. Open is still the only slam with equal prize money.
2. Venus in the Early Years.
Seeing footage of the Williams Sisters as they are training on the courts in Compton and when they first burst onto the scene is always amazing. They’ve been such a staple of greatness on the tour for so long that it’s easy to forget what outsiders they were and how much they really changed the game.
The documentary showed an 11-year-old Venus claiming, “I’d like to win Wimbledon as many times as anybody can win it.”
Then the documentary focused on Venus when she came onto the tour, and how she was such loner. She was quoted as saying, “In the beginning, it was just me and my family, I wasn’t interested in knowing any of the players.”
It was clear that when Venus came onto the tour, she was just focused on winning. Because she had the family support system around her, she didn’t feel the pressure to get to know anyone else. She was young. She was different. She hadn’t grown up in the juniors. She kept to herself.
Billie Jean King reflected how Venus wasn’t naturally an outgoing person like Serena was. She’s a thinker and an introvert.
3. The Bead Incident.
The documentary focuses on the 1999 Australian Open quarterfinal match between Venus and Lindsay Davenport as an integral moment because it shows how Venus was capable of standing up for herself.
During the match, a strand of beads falls out of her hair right before her serve. Lindsay doesn’t seem to notice, nothing is disrupted, but she ends up being penalized anyway. Venus really gets into it with the umpire, rightly claiming that there was no reason for her to be penalized.
It is painted in the doc as a real “outsider vs. insider” moment. You can read more about it here.
4. Venus Winning Her First Wimbledon in 2000.
This was great to relive because I had forgotten about how brash and confident young Venus was.
Remember, 2000 was three years after Venus had made her first Grand Slam final. Not only had she not won a Grand Slam yet, she hadn’t even been back to a final. Her baby sister won a slam before she did. Doubts were everywhere.
Plus, Venus was playing Lindsay Davenport, who had dominated their H2H 9-3 at the time, and had taken her out in three slams.
But the doc really shows that Venus knew that was her moment.
The quotes they showed from that time proved how ready Venus was. When asked if she felt she was dreaming, she said: “I don’t think it’s a dream. I’ve had a lot of tough losses in Grand Slams, this is not a dream.”
It revisits how Venus was broken while serving for the match in the second set, and she remembers thinking: “It was my turn. It was my tournament. I have no more chances. I have to do this. My turn. My tournament.”
She won the match, and afterwards she jumped up and down like crazy, as did Richard and his whiteboard. You can see some of the celebration here:
5. McEnroe’s Evolution About Equal Prize Money.
Of course, after her first Wimbledon (and her second, and her third), Venus won less money than her male counterparts.
As the documentary transitions from the triumphs of Venus to her focus on the equal prize money issue, John McEnroe admits that when he was a player he did not think that women deserved the same amount of money. He thought it was ridiculous. But now, as a father to two boys and four girls, he realizes that tennis sets a very important example with the prize money equality.
It was wonderful to hear McEnroe admit that he had been wrong during his playing career, that it was machismo driving his opinions, and that he now saw the value of equal pay.
(For the record, I think this is true. I can argue economics and value all day with you, and I will. But sports have never been just about economics. Tennis is lucrative, period. Women’s tennis is lucrative, period. It’s about the message at this point.)
6. Maria Sharapova Shade.
Maria Sharapova was interviewed for the documentary and spoke eloquently about the battle for equal prize money. But my FAVORITE part of the documentary was when she mentioned that the men who were often speaking out against equal prize money were the same men who weren’t making it far in tournaments. Cut to Gilles Simon at last year’s Wimbledon saying, “I have the feeling that men’s tennis is actually more interesting than women’s tennis.”
(I died. Because that was hysterical.)
7. Bullshit Arguments.
So, obviously a lot of the documentary was just about the sexism and the people who were resisting equal play. Along with the Simon quote, there was Tim Henman saying that women were “getting greedy” asking for equal prize money, and Richard Krajicek saying that women should “just be happy with what they make.” Ugh.
There are great counterpoints in the documentary, of course. John McEnroe, Maria Sharapova, and others mention that women offer the same entertainment value as men, and that time is irrelevant. To bolster that argument, McEnroe points out that with movies or plays you don’t pay for length.
Stacy Allaster and Sharapova both bring up that women have offered to pay best-of-five, but it’s the television sponsors, tournament officials, and old tennis traditions that are preventing that. That is no reason to punish the women, who put in just as much work off-court.
As for the media element, the television ratings are all cyclical and vary drastically by region anyways. Print media chooses their story of the day to write about based on whatever is the most compelling between the women and the men. They all cover the men’s and women’s Grand Slam as a single entity.
And then there’s the ridiculous argument that the ticket prices at Wimbledon were higher for the men’s final than the women’s final. As the people in the documentary point out, Wimbledon was setting the prices! Both finals were selling out. How could the women be punished for this?
And as if that wasn’t enough, there’s this infamous quote from the Wimbledon secretary: “If we paid women more, we wouldn’t have as much to spend on petunias.”
As time went on and the percentages between the prize money for the men and women became less and less different, it was clear that it was more about the overall message than the business. After all, could 94% or 97% of the men’s prize money really be justified economically, or was it just about keeping women in their place?
8. The Speech That Venus Gave Before the 2005 Final.
Okay, so this was a huge moment that I didn’t actually know about before. Things were really heating up on the equal pay issue prior to the 2005 Wimbledon tournament. The Australian Open and the U.S. Open were already offering equal pay, and Wimbledon was the main focus for the WTA executives.
Apparently, the day before the women’s final at Wimbledon, the representatives of all the Grand Slams and every important tour person met for a board meeting. Well, the day before playing in the HUGE 2005 final against Lindsay Davenport, Venus showed up at the meeting and made a speech.
(That’s crazy, by the way. A player had never showed up at that meeting before!)
Without having a speech plan, she got up in front of all the Important Board Members and told them to close their eyes. “No peeking.”
And they closed their eyes. Because this was Venus Williams.
She told them to picture being a little girl with a dream–whether it’s tennis or politics or business. Then she said, “Imagine that you can’t earn as much or achieve that dream just because of your gender.”
(You can read more about her amazing speech at that meeting here.)
Then, the next day, she went out and beat Lindsay Davenport 9-7 in the third set of Wimbledon to win her first major in four years. She was behind the entire match, but she dug it out. That final lasted longer than the men’s final that year, and it was one of the best women’s Grand Slam finals ever. Not only was it long, but it was high quality from start to finish.
In the documentary, Venus emotionally recalled Serena’s advice to her before that final, which was: “If you take your opportunities, more will come.”
As she was serving for the match at 8-7, she repeated those words to herself.
Venus won that Wimbledon. She still earned less money than Roger Federer.
9. The Letter.
After all of her work in 2005 came up short, Venus published the following letter in The Times before Wimbledon in 2006. I’m just going to re-print it all here, because I think it’s worth it to read every single word. I appreciate this blog for keeping it up, since The Times has a paywall.
Most people cite this letter as a the clinching point. It’s stellar.
Wimbledon has sent me a message: I’m only a second-class champion
The Times & The Sunday Times
June 26, 2006
The time has come for it to do the right thing: pay men and women equal prize money
HAVE YOU ever been let down by someone that you had long admired, respected and looked up to? Little in life is more disappointing, particularly when that person does something that goes against the very heart of what you believe is right and fair.
When I was a little girl, and Serena and I played matches together, we often pretended that we were in the final of a famous tournament. More often than not we imagined we were playing on the Centre Court at Wimbledon. Those two young sisters from Compton, California, were “Wimbledon champions” many times, years before our dreams of playing there became reality.
There is nothing like playing at Wimbledon; you can feel the footprints of the legends of the game — men and women — that have graced those courts. There isn’t a player who doesn’t dream of holding aloft the Wimbledon trophy. I have been fortunate to do so three times, including last year. That win was the highlight of my career to date, the culmination of so many years of work and determination, and at a time when most people didn’t consider me to be a contender.
So the decision of the All England Lawn Tennis Club yet again to treat women as lesser players than men — undeserving of the same amount of prize money — has a particular sting.
I’m disappointed not for myself but for all of my fellow women players who have struggled so hard to get here and who, just like the men, give their all on the courts of SW19. I’m disappointed for the great legends of the game, such as Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, who have never stopped fighting for equality. And disappointed that the home of tennis is sending a message to women across the world that we are inferior.
With power and status comes responsibility. Well, Wimbledon has power and status. The time has come for it to do the right thing by paying men and women the same sums of prize money. The total prize pot for the men’s events is £5,197,440; for the women it is £4,446,490. The winner of the ladies’ singles receives £30,000 less than the men’s winner; the runner-up £15,000 less, and so on down to the first-round losers.
How can it be that Wimbledon finds itself on the wrong side of history? How can the words Wimbledon and inequality be allowed to coexist? I’ve spent my life overcoming challenges and those who said certain things couldn’t be achieved for this or that reason. My parents taught me that dreams can come true if you put in the effort. Maybe that’s why I feel so strongly that Wimbledon’s stance devalues the principle of meritocracy and diminishes the years of hard work that women on the tour have put into becoming professional tennis players.
I believe that athletes — especially female athletes in the world’s leading sport for women — should serve as role models. 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: 128 men and 128 women compete in the singles main draw at Wimbledon; the All England Club is saying that the accomplishments of the 128 women are worth less than those of the 128 men. It diminishes the stature and credibility of such a great event in the eyes of all women.
The funny thing is that Wimbledon treats men and women the same in so many other respects; winners receive the same trophy and honorary membership. And as you enter Centre Court, the two photographs of last year’s men’s and women’s champions are hung side by side, proudly and equally.
So why does Wimbledon choose to place a lesser value on my championship trophy than that of the 2005 men’s winner Roger Federer? The All England Club is familiar with my views on the subject; at Wimbledon last year, the day before the final, I presented my views to it and its French Open counterparts. Both clearly gave their response: they are firmly in the inequality for women camp.
Wimbledon has argued that women’s tennis is worth less for a variety of reasons; it says, for example, that because men play a best of five sets game they work harder for their prize money.
This argument just doesn’t make sense; first of all, women players would be happy to play five sets matches in grand slam tournaments. Tim Phillips, the chairman of the All England Club, knows this and even acknowledged that women players are physically capable of this.
Secondly, tennis is unique in the world of professional sports. No other sport has men and women competing for a grand slam championship on the same stage, at the same time. So in the eyes of the general public the men’s and women’s games have the same value.
Third, athletes are also entertainers; we enjoy huge and equal celebrity and are paid for the value we deliver to broadcasters and spectators, not the amount of time we spend on the stage. And, for the record, the ladies’ final at Wimbledon in 2005 lasted 45 minutes longer than the men’s. No extra charge.
Let’s not forget that the US Open, for 33 years, and the Australian Open already award equal prize money. No male player has complained — why would they?
Wimbledon has justified treating women as second class because we do more for the tournament. The argument goes that the top women — who are more likely also to play doubles matches than their male peers — earn more than the top men if you count singles, doubles and mixed doubles prize money. So the more we support the tournament, the more unequally we should be treated! But doubles and mixed doubles are separate events from the singles competition. Is Wimbledon suggesting that, if the top women withdrew from the doubles events, that then we would deserve equal prize money in singles? And how then does the All England Club explain why the pot of women’s doubles prize money is nearly £130,000 smaller than the men’s doubles prize money?
Equality is too important a principle to give up on for the sake of less than 2 per cent of the profit that the All England Club will make at this year’s tournament. Profit that men and women will contribute to equally through sold-out sessions, TV ratings or attraction to sponsors. Of course, one can never distinguish the exact value brought by each sex in a combined men’s and women’s championship, so any attempt to place a lesser value on the women’s contribution is an exercise in pure subjectivity.
Let’s put it another way, the difference between men and women’s prize money in 2005 was £456,000 — less than was spent on ice cream and strawberries in the first week. So the refusal of the All England Club, which declared a profit of £25 million from last year’s tournament, to pay equal prize money can’t be about cash. It can only be trying to make a social and political point, one that is out of step with modern society.
I intend to keep doing everything I can until Billie Jean’s original dream of equality is made real. It’s a shame that the name of the greatest tournament in tennis, an event that should be a positive symbol for the sport, is tarnished.
10. Tony Blair Joins the Cause.
So, as if that letter didn’t do the trick, a brave parliament member (whose name I didn’t record, and I hope someone else did, because I feel awful) brought up the issue to Tony Blair during a session of parliament. And he publicly stated that he believed in equal pay for women at Wimbledon. And all was right with the world.
Finally, all of the hard work paid off. In 2007, Wimbledon offered equal pay, and the French Open quickly caved and followed suit. Venus Williams won the 2007 Wimbledon Championships over Marion Bartoli and was the first female player at Wimbledon to receive equal prize money.
And, what do you know, the petunias still looked great.
-The relationship between Billie Jean King and Venus Williams made me tear up multiple times during the documentary. Especially their hug after equal prize money at Wimbledon was finally achieved. Chills.
-Seeing Serena in the stands supporting Venus and giving her inspirational words was really incredible. Serena has built her own myth and legend separate from her sister the past four years, but it’s really crucial to remember that Venus broke through first, and before 2009 and Sjogren’s they were nearly equal in Grand Slam count. Perspective.
-As moving as the documentary was, from a filmmaking standpoint I thought that it needed to be given at least an extra 30 minutes. Also, I hated the way they framed the interviews with all the head space, etc. (Personal preference, yes, but I went to film school and can’t help judging these things.)
-I tweeted this after the documentary and I will repeat it here: If you really think the “equal pay” issue is just about business and economics, then you do not understand the power of sports. Venus had enough money. This fight was never about paying the bills. It’s about respect.
I asked for everyone’s favorite moments of the documentary on Twitter, and here are the responses I got:
— Prashant Paul (@prashantsport) July 3, 2013
@linzsports watching young Serena on the sidelines, super proud of her big sis was a huge highlight
— Arlene (@FitLen) July 3, 2013
— Kelly (@MungoNGus) July 3, 2013
@linzsports For someone who only started following around 09, this was really good. I still think it’s so cool tennis has this in place.
— Tony (@tjc05) July 3, 2013
Venus: “there is something about the serenity of Wimbledon that just matches up with my personality… It was meant to be” #lovethatquote
— AAG (@youpaynow) July 3, 2013
@linzsports The beads. I remember the AO moment but never thought about the larger significance of the beads and people’s dislike of them.
— Steph (@StephintheUS) July 3, 2013
@linzsports The speech on the Friday before the final at Wimbledon. I literally got chills.
— Ataraxis (@Ataraxis00) July 3, 2013
@linzsports when Venus told them to close their eyes and imagine they were girls being told they won’t be able achieve as much as men
— L K (@doubleleon) July 3, 2013
@linzsports Also, young Venus being asked about Wimbledon. I mean, it’s just amazing to see her talk about it when she was so young. Chills.
— Steph (@StephintheUS) July 3, 2013
— ldmpdm (@ldmpdm) July 3, 2013
I also love the “if you take your opportunities more will come” quote from SW echoing in her head as she broke & held in ’05. @linzsports
— AAG (@youpaynow) July 3, 2013
What about you guys, did you learn something from the documentary? What was your favorite part? Isn’t Venus awesome?
Please keep the conversation going.