Say these names aloud: Martina. Monica. Venus. Steffi. Anna.
These tennis players are recognized by their first names, for their glamour as well as their groundstrokes. From baseline to hemline, women's tennis is hip. It's hot. The sport has better television ratings than the men's game and keener rivalries.
The big story at Wimbledon this year is not whether it'll rain or how No. 1 men's player Pete Sampras will do. It's about equal pay for women. The debate has rumbled for years, but now it's sizzling: There are protests and petitions.
Wimbledon, along with the French and Australian Opens, pays less prize money to women than men. Among the big four championships, only the US Open pays equally. This year, Wimbledon's prize money for the men's champion is $728,000, while the women's winner gets $655,200.
Top women players including Wimbledon champion Jana Novotna and Anna Kournikova, are backing a protest, organized by the Women's Tennis Association, calling on the All England Club to end the inequality.
Those who oppose equal pay say men work harder than women, so the equal pay for equal work yardstick does not apply. They point out that in major tournaments men must win three sets to win a match versus two sets for the women. They charge that women's early-round results are almost always predictable and no fun. (Jimmy Connors once said that women's tennis was so boring they should play the finals on the first day; Pat Cash called women's tennis "two sets of rubbish." And on Tuesday, Britain's Tim Henmen termed women players "greedy.")
"We do surveys of all the people who come on a regular basis and, in three surveys over the past 10 years, 70 percent of the people say that first and foremost the thing they want to watch is men's singles," Wimbledon chairman John Curry said recently, trying to justify the club's policy to pay men more.
That assessment means little to the cable channel HBO. For the second consecutive year, HBO is showcasing the women at Wimbledon. Last year, it dedicated about 60 percent of its 60 hours of coverage to women's matches: Ratings increased 19 percent. On Eurosport, a major European network, the ratings for women's tennis were nearly twice those for men's during the first quarter of 1999.
"You wanna know my opinion?" wrote former champion John McEnroe in a New York Times opinion piece earlier this month. "If I were advising the guys, I'd tell them to take the equal prize money - while they still have a chance.... In the meantime, the women are carrying the promotional load and bringing fans through the turnstiles. They should be paid accordingly."
And this week, the future of women's tennis may have gotten even brighter. No. 1 ranked Martina Hingis was upset by 16-year-old Jelena Dokic. Say her name softly, for now.