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Until 2007, women champions at the legendary tennis tournament won a smaller cash prize than the men champions

Court of appeals

The inspiring story of how Venus Williams helped win equal pay for women players at Wimbledon

By Anjana Sreedhar on July 10, 2015

Their names are synonymous with speed, power and a humble approach to stardom: Venus and Serena Williams faced each other in an intense match at this year’s Wimbledon tournament, which ended in victory for younger sister Serena. The sisters have always spurred each other to the heights of success with a combination of fierce competitiveness and mutual encouragement.

Yet, what sets Venus Williams apart from Serena (and from other entrepreneurial, heavily branded athletes) is her persistent advocacy for women — specifically, on the issue of equal prize money for equal merit, a still-contentious topic in many sports (including one very much in the spotlight this week — women’s soccer). Indeed, Venus Williams has fought and helped win a prolonged battle for women athletes.

According to espnW, Williams made her first public mention of the need for Grand Slam events to award equal prize money to men and women back in 1998, after a first-round Wimbledon match. At the time, the U.S. Open was the only Grand Slam tournament that awarded equal prize money to male and female champions. At Wimbledon, one of the major Grand Slam events and among the oldest tennis tournaments in the sport’s history, women had competed for less prize money than their male counterparts ever since they began participating in 1880.

In 2005, Venus Williams clinched the Wimbledon title after battling it out against top seed Lindsay Davenport in the longest women’s final in history. The day before that match, Williams attended a board meeting held by the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, the organization that runs the tournament, and asked those present to close their eyes and imagine being a little girl who trains for years only to “… get to this stage, and you’re told you’re not the same as a boy …”

That same year, Roger Federer won the men’s championship game against American Andy Roddick in straight sets, collecting $1.13 million in prize money. But his female counterpart, Williams, won only $1.08 million. Several months after Williams’s speech at the All England Club, the women’s championship prize money was increased, according to ESPN W, but still did not match the men’s award.

LONDON - JULY 03:  Venus Williams and Roger Federer pose with the trophies at the Wimbledon Winners Dinner at the Savoy Hotel on July 3, 2005 in London.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Venus Williams and Roger Federer pose with the trophies at the Wimbledon Winners Dinner at the Savoy Hotel on July 3, 2005 in London. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

When asked in 2006 why the pay gap persisted in the face of increasing criticism, the club chairman, Tim Phillips, justified the prize discrepancy saying the physical demands of the men’s best-of-five matches are much higher than those of the women’s best-of-three. Phillips added that the club didn’t view the prize discrepancy as “an equal rights issue,” noting that “the top 10 ladies last year earned more from Wimbledon than the top 10 men did” by also playing in the doubles tournament.

Later that year, the CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), Larry Scott, asked Venus Williams if she would be willing to play a central role in aggressively pursuing equal pay, a mission she embraced.

Williams and other prominent female tennis players such as Maria Sharapova and Kim Clijsters needed to overcome the argument that the men’s best-of-five playing format merited higher pay. In an Op-Ed published in The London Times, Williams argued that Wimbledon’s prize structure “devalues the principle of meritocracy and diminishes the years of hard work that women on the tour have put into becoming professional tennis players. 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.” The piece generated enough attention from British politicians that then MP Janet Anderson brought it up during a question-and-answer session in Parliament, prompting Prime Minister Tony Blair to endorse equal pay in his response.

In 2007, Williams’s efforts paid off. A statement from Phillips, chairman of the All England Club read, “This year, taking into account both the overall progression and the fact that broader social factors are also relevant to the decision, they [the Committee] have decided that the time is right to bring this subject to a logical conclusion and eliminate the difference.” After Venus heard about this decision, she responded with her own statement: “The greatest tennis tournament in the world has reached an even greater height today. I applaud today’s decision by Wimbledon, which recognizes the value of women’s tennis.”

This story, while hugely popular in Britain, did not receive as much media attention in the United States. That is, until American filmmaker Ava DuVernay — of Selma fame—was approached by ESPN to make a film on women in sports. She knew exactly which story to cover. In carefully outlining not only the history of the WTA but also Venus’s rise to the top, DuVernay was able to capture the changing landscape of women’s tennis and Venus’s role in it. The 2013 film, titled Venus VS., highlights how the now-35 year old tennis champion started off, practicing in pothole-riddled tennis courts in Compton, California, and rising to the highest levels of what was considered a rich man’s game.

DuVernay praised Williams, in an interview about the film, for putting “the full weight of her brand” behind the cause of equal pay. Willams may have lost her latest match on the grass courts at Wimbledon, but the victory she won off the court helped achieve an enduring victory for women players at the iconic tournament and, by extension, for all women in the fight for equal pay.

Watch: How Venus Williams played a central role in fighting for equal pay at Wimbledon: