Roland Garros 2017 showcased both the men’s and women’s game at its finest. History was made in both men’s and women’s singles finals, and the quality of both draws ensured that nearly half a million people visited the tournament at some point during the fortnight. This year’s Roland Garros will undoubtedly be remembered primarily for the incredible on-court performances of the players in all aspects of the tournament. Nonetheless, it is vital that tennis players, fans, and analysts also remember this incredible tournament as the moment that the women’s game finally received the appreciation and coverage that it deserves.
It seems as though every time we talk about women’s tennis, the “equal pay” debate springs up. Analyses of women’s tournaments, both in public and in the media, often descend into discussions where equal pay almost needs to be justified. We often hear talk of men having to go through grueling 5-set matches, whereas the women’s three-set matches are over before the stadium is even full. Prior to this year’s Roland Garros, this may have been a remotely justifiable claim.
The stats comparing the two Roland Garros finals tell a different story. Jelena Ostapenko beat Simona Halep in three sets, the same amount as it took Rafael Nadal to beat Stanislas Wawrinka the following day. The match times of the two matches were also remarkably similar. The men’s final took a mere six minutes longer than the women’s final, and featured 16 fewer winners. Even the physical exertion of both sets of players is comparable. Both Nadal and Wawrinka covered slightly over 2km during the match, whereas Halep and Ostapenko covered 1.9km and 1.6km, respectively. The stark similarity between the two sets of statistics may make for surprising reading for some. Nonetheless, it shows that the best-of-five set rule for Grand Slams does not necessarily ensure that men spend more time on the court and physically exert themselves compared to their counterparts in the women’s draw.
The Ostapenko versus Halep final is not alone in providing the same entertainment value as a men’s match. Let’s not forget Kristina Mladenovic’s incredible win over Garbine Muguruza, Karolina Pliskova’s marathon match against Caroline Garcia, or Caroline Wozniacki’s three-set win over Svetlana Kuznetsova. The women’s draw was, in many ways, more interesting than the men’s draw. The reasons for this are numerous and have been well documented, such as the withdrawal of several potential title contenders. Nonetheless, an essential driving force for the greater entertainment value of women’s matches has been the introduction of a new TV licensing deal, which significantly bridged the revenue gap between the men’s and women’s games. Women now have more to play for, and as a result, we are seeing better matches.
Roland Garros 2017 showcased the resilience of the women’s game in response to pressure from both within and outside the tennis world. Women’s tennis has been reduced almost to a second-rate sport for too long, and it is clear that the justification for this is diminishing with every latest women’s match. There is still a long way to go. The performances and drama of Roland Garros this year need to be repeated more often on the women’s circuit, especially during Grand Slams, if the women’s game is to leave behind the spectre of the “equal pay” debate and be recognised on the same level as the men’s game. It is a shame that this needs to be the case, for women’s tennis has long been fascinating and exciting in its own right, without needlessly having to respond to the “equal pay” debate. What is clear is that the hopes of women’s tennis now lie with the likes of Jelena Ostapenko, Kristina Mladenovic, and Karolina Pliskova. If their performances at Roland Garros this year are anything to go by, then the future is in good hands.