U.S. Open gilds the lily of anti-male discrimination

It’s that time of year again: the U.S. Open Tennis Championship is in full swing in New York. Tennis luminaries both past and present have assembled, and ESPN is on the story almost 24 hours a day. Want to know what Maria Sharapova ate for breakfast two days ago? Someone can probably tell you. Indeed, they probably already have, possibly with instant replay. Tennis is a fine sport, but in the end, there’s just so much you can say about so-and-so’s backhand or whether someone else’s big toe has a cramp. Of course, dead air is the bane of broadcast journalism, so the words keep coming, whether we want them or not.

With all that, you’d think they’d cover everything that could possibly be of interest. In fact, you’d think they do so two or three times. So that can only mean that little items like the frank anti-male bias of the sport aren’t of interest. Otherwise, surely it would garner at least a mention. And in fact it did this year, about which I’ll say more later.

Since as long as I can remember, male tennis players have played the best three out of five sets to determine a winner while the ladies play only two out of three. No one, including me, thought much about that until several years ago when female players lobbied for equal pay and got it. Ever since then, at least at the four majors (the U.S., French, and Australian Opens and Wimbledon), male and female players have received equal prize money.

Equal pay for equal work? Nope, not at the tennis majors. (Some other tournaments allow men to play only two out of three.) Now, of course, if a male player wins in straight sets, he’s only played three and therefore may not play any more games than a woman who’s been taken to three sets by her opponent. But a count of games played by the men and women at the U.S. Open this year reveals that, in the first round, men played an average of 33 games per match while the women played an average of 21 games. In the second round, it was 31 and 23 respectively. And in the third it was 34 and 20. In short, the men play over 50% more games on average than do the women but only get paid the same.

Years ago, one male player complained about the setup but was ignored by some and excoriated by others for his shockingly unchivalrous kvetching.

And, by the standards of most people, the pay’s not bad. Did you lose in the first round? In fact, maybe you didn’t win a single game. You still get paid about $30,000. Plus, if some manufacturer of sports gear or apparel gave you a little logo or something to wear on your shirt, that’s an extra $5,000. Not bad at all. If you’re good enough to win the championship, you’ll get about $3 million for your two weeks of working every other day.

But this year the U.S. Open has added another little fillip to its anti-male bias, just in case we missed it the first time. The last several days have been particularly hot in New York and, worse, the humidity’s been high. On Tuesday, players went out on the hard courts in 92°F weather with 60% humidity. Athletes who are in extremely good physical condition were obviously suffering by the third set.

But not to worry. The Open has an Extreme Heat Rule (EHR) whereby the chair umpire can simply call a halt to play if he/she thinks the players are in too much difficulty. Plus, the EHR allows players to request a 10-minute break in play that must be granted.

Except. The EHR is only available to female players. The men don’t benefit from it, and the chair umpire is forbidden to stop play on their behalf. That’s right, the players who play the most and who therefore are most likely to need relief from the heat don’t get the benefit of the EHR. Those who play less do. Make sense?

Early in the tournament, I heard two male commentators who were covering one of the matches refer to the Extreme Heat Rule. Their conversation went something like this:

Commentator 1: The Extreme Heat Rule may come into play this year.

Commentator 2: (Explained the rule.)

Commentator 1: But only the women benefit from it.

Commentator 2: That’s true, the men don’t.

Commentator 1:  The ones who play the most don’t get to use the rule.

… Dead Silence …

And that was that. To my knowledge, there’s not been a single other mention of the rather astonishing discrimination against male players by the EHR.

Remember those game differentials I mentioned earlier? They would actually be greater except that a remarkable nine men simply stopped play in mid-match, unable to continue, or didn’t play at all. Only two women did that. Had those men played complete matches, the difference between the number of games played by men as opposed to women would have been even greater.

Did the lack of an Extreme Heat Rule for the men play a part in there being so many retirements and “walkovers” by the men? Who knows, but it’s certainly a possibility. One look at 20th-seed Gael Monfils bent over, leaning on his racket, gasping for breath between points gives us an idea of what they’re going through.

And let’s remember that tennis, like most sports, is physical activity. To pursue it as a career and to earn a living, a player must be in excellent condition and be physically sound. Over a many years, playing the best three out of five sets takes who knows how much off of a player’s career. Fatigue of course tends to beget injuries, and injuries can wreak havoc on a player’s career. An EHR that applied to men as well as women could easily reduce those injuries.

So the sport of tennis and the U.S. Open in particular have adopted policies that not only discriminate against male players in the pay they receive but also jeopardize the very thing they most need—physical well-being. And of course many of those men are the greatest draws in the sport. Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, and others are the face of tennis in the way only Serena Williams can claim to be on the women’s side. Is absence from the sport or early retirement due to injury really what tennis wants for those guys?

It’s a strange way to run a railroad. But what’s even stranger is the lengths to which people will go to privilege women and penalize men. In this case, tennis is doing so at the risk of its own self-interest. Strange indeed.

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