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Game, Set and Mismatch: Is Djokovic Missing the Point?

22/03/2016 17:13 GMT | Updated 23/03/2017 09:12 GMT

Prize money should be "fairly distributed" according to "who attracts more attention, spectators and who sells more tickets"

In the name of fairness, before I get stuck into this topic I do want to spare a thought for Novak Djokovic. He probably just wanted to answer a few questions about the tournament he'd won, humbly pay his beaten opponent some compliments and get out of the press room to enjoy his victory. Instead - and with no small thanks to the idiotic comments of the Indian Wells tournament CEO - a journalist threw him a grenade. Novak was tired and sweaty and his footwork hadn't let him down all week. But instead of a deft sidestep, a "No comment," or an "I don't really want to talk about that right now," he slipped. He's allowed to voice his opinion, of course. It's just that an opinion on this particular topic is always going to cause a bit of a stir.

As usual, I'm not planning to burn my bra or march to Westminster over this. Djokovic's words might hold some truth and I think it's important to consider these arguments too. On the face of it, there is a certain degree of logic to his answer. As an entertainment-hungry public, we are prepared to pay a premium to see superstars perform. It would be good to have a situation where lower ranked performers find themselves in a more financially viable position to climb the ladder, but it's pretty easy to admit I'd pay more to watch a top player than an average one. There's no doubt that supply and demand have an impact on sportspeople's earning potential - if you attract more attention, maybe you should be paid more. However, I'd argue that ultimately this is more about your profile as an athlete and your ability to attract endorsements. We're talking about prize money - should the 'attention' you receive really impact on how much you're paid in the same way your results do?

Of course, it's still going to be a bit difficult for many people to digest without raising an eyebrow. Does a man who has now earned almost $100 million in career prize money alone need an extra few hundred thousand dollars here or there? The counter argument is easy: you should be paid what you deserve. Top tennis players work in an arena where enormous financial rewards are available. Don't forget that as spectators, we create this by paying for Sky TV and devouring the sports pages - but the 'morality' of this lucrative environment is a discussion for another time.

For me, the biggest discussions Djoko's comments raise are around this concept of fairness. How can we measure "fair distribution" accurately? Should we rely on a stereotypical inclination to assume that more people buy tickets to watch men's tennis, or should we focus on the fact that the women's 2015 US Open final sold out more quickly than the men's? Every single Grand Slam singles final for both genders is always played in front of a capacity crowd. As spectators, do we bank on a battle between Djokovic and Andy Murray being better, or do we buy into the frequently enthralling unpredictability of a match in the women's tournament?

...An erudite friend of mine summed that up perfectly: "While I love Andy Murray as much as the next one-eyed Scot, the men's [2016] Aussie Open final was worth about a fiver. The women's final, on the other hand, was an absolute cracker."

The other problem as I see it is that Djokovic's statement is too focused on 'now'. Let's imagine a world where men and women live, work, speak, aspire and are perceived completely equally. In that world, if men's tennis truly generates more attention and sells more tickets, then maybe it would be reasonable to consider allocating prize money on the basis of gender. But we don't live in that world. It's all well and good making an offhand statement that people prefer men's tennis, but whether or not it is true, in an environment where it's still pushed more, broadcast more, talked about more, that doesn't automatically mean it should be "worth" more. And perhaps more importantly, shouldn't we be concerned about creating and supporting an environment that allows change and enables players' potential to be realised regardless of their gender?

A great rivalry, an intense battle or a superhuman performance on a sports field isn't determined by whether you're a man or a woman. At the moment though, the number of column inches and the amount of discussion about these things does tend to be shaped by the gender of the players involved. Maybe as the guy who wins the most tournaments and sells more than his fair share of tickets, Djokovic has a legitimate claim that money in tennis could be allocated more fairly according to these criteria. But is that because he's Novak Djokovic, or because he's a man? Without a magical way to measure what 'fairly' really means in tennis, sport and on a wider scale, life, I'd argue that gender simply isn't a wise yardstick to use.

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