One of the sports controversies I pay attention to , that has simmered for years, is the question of whether men and women should be paid equal monies in tennis prizes. On the face of it, it would seem obvious that men and women should not be paid any differently for equal amounts of work. Yet, as is often the case, when one digs beneath the superficial level, one finds that simply paying equal prizes would be to greatly devalue the work of men, who have to work considerably harder and longer to win a tennis tournament than women do. Rather than engage in unprofitable emotional reasoning, this discussion will seek to frame a solution for equal pay that relies on data, and that provides a meaningful introduction to casual fans on how statistics can enrich our discussions, so long as they are used on a level that is sufficiently deep to avoid the superficiality that is common in our general social and political discourse.
Currently, men and women are paid equal at major championships, and the prize money is divided based on how far in a tournament someone progresses in a tiered fashion, so that all semifinalists get paid the same, as do all quarterfinalists, and so on all the way to the small prize money given to those who reach different levels of a qualifying event. Furthermore, there are different levels of prize money given to doubles and mixed doubles players based also on the size of the field. On the surface, this would appear to be just. Yet, as is often the case in life, questions of justice require deeper analysis than the sort of surface “Both men and women play equal number of matches, and both are equally talented and popular, and so both should be paid equally” arguments that are commonly made. Additionally, even within segments, there is no incentive to play hard in a losing effort versus tanking, except for one’s own sense of honor and integrity. In terms of pay and points awarded, there is currently no difference between someone who loses a hard-fought match by a narrow margin and someone who was entirely overwhelmed. Yet for a fan watching the game in person or on the television, there would be a vastly different level of appreciation for the two performances.
Given the levels of data analysis tools present, there is no question that tennis could be vastly improved in the precision of rankings and prize money by use of some very straightforward statistics. We know, for example, that in order for a men’s tennis player to win a match, he must win three sets out of five (unless a player retires due to injury). On the other hand, a woman must only win two sets out of three. Receiving equal pay for winning the match means that the time and effort and work of a man is significantly undervalued, potentially by up to 60%, relative to the time of a woman. This is without even getting into the question of the depth of competition between men and women, a matter that would require deeper analysis. It does not take a great deal of effort to see that winning three sets is harder work than winning two, and yet at present both are given the same reward. Additionally, a grueling five-set victory that takes two days of tennis is given the same amount of prize and point differential as a walkover win against an opponent who withdraws due to injury, as both lead to advancement. Clearly, in order to be just to the effort that is required to win, a more nuanced system of points and prize money would be worthwhile.
Given the hierarchical nature of tennis, this would not be difficult to manage. The present distribution of prize money and points makes a suitable first level, in that there should be a base number of points and prize money that is based on how far one progresses in a tournament. Added to this, there should be points and prize money allotted to how many sets one wins. Winning a match or two due to a walkover requires much less work than a lengthy slog, and should be rewarded accordingly. Likewise, those who win sets in a brave but unsuccessful effort deserve to be rewarded against those who are simply blown off the court. Going further, winning games ought to matter, as a five-set tiebreaker that goes to 21-19 required a lot more effort than a 6-2 final set victory. Given the statistical nature of tennis, one could even see a small premium for winning points, as lengthy rallies and deuces ought to count more than games that were regularly decided at love or 15. One could go even further than that, but even this level of granularity would provide a nuanced and balanced picture of rewarding effort, so that people are paid and rewarded for work, and not merely the end result. Such a system would incentivize hard work by giving it practical reward. It would be worth fighting for every point, every game, and every set, because even if one ended up losing a match, one would still be rewarded for the effort along the way, and one would be part of making for much more exciting matches that would reward the sponsors and tournaments as well, giving more archival footage for commercials and documentaries in the process.
Beyond this, of course, one could set caps and floors, so that winning a match by any means would guarantee a certain number of points that would be greater than someone could get for losing a match on the same level, no matter how bravely, yet it would not be hard to come up with a more just and a more nuanced system that awarded the time and effort in an more equal fashion. Justice is not always served merely by superficial equality, but sometimes by unequal rewards, for unequal effort in an unequal challenge should not lead to equal rewards. Yet our world is not often sufficiently aware of and sensitive to these larger questions of justice because identity politics often matters more than the amount of time and effort that is taken to accomplish a task given different rules. If one wanted to pay men and women equally for tennis matches, they should be played according to the same standards, both playing best of five sets. Then, there would be no dispute that women were playing just as hard as the men, and would deserve equal pay without question, because they would be doing equal amounts of work. Achieving justice requires more than simple identity politics and requires an examination of the circumstances and constraints under which the game is played, and this appears beyond the capacity of most commentators.
 See, also: