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Why Tennis Is the Most Popular Women’s Sport

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In the women’s final of the U.S. Open on Sunday, Caroline Wozniacki will face off against Serena Williams. But if Williams had her druthers, the match would be determined in five sets, not three.

Men usually play best of three on the circuit, but at the Open and other Grand Slam events, they play best of five. Not so for women, who still play best of three despite protests from a few players like Williams who believe they can do more. “We women are strong, ready, willing and able,” tournament favorite Williams told the New York Times. “All the women players have agreed to it, but it’s not what [the tournaments] want at this time.”

While it’s a long shot that the women’s game will move to best of five set matches, the five vs. three debate is one of the final frontiers for women tennis players striving for equality in the sport. Women tennis players earn more money, endorsements and TV face time than any other female athletes. And they have been gaining on their male counterparts in terms of prize money and skill.

Since 2007, when Wimbledon and the French Open joined the other two Grand Slams in offering equal prize money for men and women players, tennis has etched away at gender barriers. Should Williams hoist the winner’s trophy Sunday, she would take home a cool $4 million, the biggest paycheck ever for the winner (male or female) of a single tennis tournament. That’s because her $3 million prize money would be augmented considerably by the fact that she won the U.S. Open series, the North American tournaments that lead up to the final Grand Slam, which awards an extra $1 million if its winner goes on to take the U.S. Open.

Take the tennis serve. Last month, German player Sabine Lisicki hit a serve at 131 miles per hour, setting a new record for the fastest serve in women’s tennis. (Venus Williams previously held the record at 129 mph.) Though that’s still a far cry from the men’s fastest serves ever recorded—Sam Groth at 163.7 mph followed by Andy Roddick at 149 mph—that’s still the speed at which Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal usually serve. And women are quickly getting better: the top 10 fastest serves recorded in the WTA were all hit in the last seven years. Scientists have posed many theories as to why women’s serves becoming more powerful, but one thing is clear: it’s not the racquets that are improving, it’s the women.

In other sports, women that exhibit skills that come close to those of men are considered an anomaly: 13-year-old Little League pitcher Mo’ne Davis made the cover of Sports Illustrated for throwing baseball pitches as fast as the boys (around 70 miles per hour); Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban made headlines in 2013 when he said he might draft Brittney Griner—who dunked 18 times during her college career, a skill usually reserved for men; and Danica Patrick gets as much coverage as superior male drivers simply because she’s a woman competing in a male sport. Though the media has extolled Andy Murray for hiring former player Amélie Mauresmo as a coach—the only woman listed on the coaching staff for a top 40 ranked player—the move has caused less of a stir than the San Antonio Spurs hiring Becky Hammon, the first woman to coach during the NBA regular season, if only because the men’s and women’s games are more similar in tennis than in basketball.


Little League World Series
Starting pitcher Mo'ne Davis #3 of Pennsylvania pitches during the 2014 Little League World Series at Lamade Stadium on Aug. 20, 2014 in Williamsport, Penn.Drew Hallowell—MLB Photos/Getty Images

The sad fact is women are stuck playing sports originally designed for men. “Basketball, football, baseball, hockey, lacrosse, volleyball, tennis, poker, NASCAR, and anything else you can think of were created during a time when women were expected to be at home preparing dinner and taking care of the six children while the men were out trying to get their balls into another team’s holes,” Rick Paulas argued in Vice last year. “So, instead of the winner of a sport contest being determined by skills that women excel in (an extremely small sample based on my own experiences: flexibility, agility, nimbleness, intelligence, an insane pain threshold, investment strategies, teamwork, just f***ing living longer), they were geared towards categories like ‘I can push you further’ and ‘I can jump higher than you can jump.'”

The consequences are that women’s sports are not as popular as men’s, and female athletes struggle more than men to get big endorsement deals—even if they’re at the top of their field.

Only three women cracked this year’s Forbes 100 Highest Paid Athletes list, and all three—Maria Sharapova, Li Na and Serena Williams—were tennis players. It’s not that tennis is more lucrative than other professional sports: only three male tennis players made the list too. Women’s tennis is just more popular than any other women’s sport.

And it’s not just superstars like Williams who are benefiting from the closing pay gap. A Quartz analysis of male vs. female tennis player earnings found that there is a gap at the top of the pack—the top man, Roger Federer, has won $82 million from tournaments, while the top woman, Serena Williams, has earned only $56 million— things even out in the middle: Martina Hingis is the 11th highest earner in women’s tennis with $20.3 million from tournaments, compared to the $20.6 million earned by the men’s 11th highest earner, Andy Roddick.

Tennis tournaments have done more than just offer equal pay: the sport is structurally set up to give women an equal opportunity at drawing a crowd. They play at the same time as the men in the big tournaments, and nowadays networks will broadcast as many women’s Grand Slam games as men’s. Being treated similarly to men imbues women’s tennis with inherent value: fans will argue that though women’s tennis is different than men’s, its individual merits make it equally fascinating.

But others say the sport is popular–and female tennis players get the most endorsements—because the women still play in short skirts. The latter explanation would explain why Anna Kournikova racked up $15 million despite never winning a major title. (She is perhaps most famous for a computer virus promising nude pictures of the tennis player in 2001.) This Amy Schumer sketch captures the dichotomy pretty clearly:

It’s arguments like this that have some execs at the WNBA proposing tighter uniforms with shorter shorts. Unfortunately, there are few other ways that the WNBA could mimic women’s tennis to create productive change: playing WNBA games directly after NBA games would be unlikely to draw a bigger audience, and the league simply cannot afford to pay its players equal to NBA players. (BuzzFeed recently compiled a list of 52 NBA players who have higher salaries than all the players in the WNBA combined—and that doesn’t even count endorsement deals.)

Women’s tennis is in a unique position to gain more attention and dollars: all the more reason to even the playing field and let women play five sets.

30 Legends of Women's Tennis

Na of China serves to Cibulkova at the Rogers Cup tennis tournament in Toronto
Li Na understands rebellion. In 2008 she split from the Chinese Tennis Association, which had been taking up to 65% of her tournament earnings. Under a Chinese pilot program for sports stars dubbed Fly Alone, she gave up state funding so that she could hold on to her millions in prize money and choose her coach (who, until recently, was also her husband). Mark Blinch—Reuters
2014 US Open - Day 4
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova first made headlines in 2006, when she defeated Caroline Wozniacki at the junior championships of the Australian Open. Since then, she’s reached the quarterfinals at the 2011 Australian Open, defeated third-ranked Vera Zvonareva at Roland Garros and amassed nearly $2 million in prize money.Al Bello—Getty Images
Connecticut Open - Day 4
Andrea Petkovic immigrated to Germany from Bosnia with her parents when she was just 6 months old. Her father, a former Yugoslav tennis player, coached her at a club in Darmstadt but insisted that she finish high school before pursuing tennis professionally.Elsa—Getty Images
Western & Southern Open - Day 5
Petra Kvitova In 2008, Kvitova, then a 17-year-old ranked No. 143 in the world, made headlines by upsetting former top-ranked Venus Williams at a tournament in Memphis. She woke her father back in the Czech Republic at 3 a.m. to tell him the good news and describe her first-ever press conference. Andy Lyons—Getty Images
2014 US Open - Day 9
Caroline Wozniacki In November 2010, 20-year-old Caroline Wozniacki surged past Serena Williams to grab the No. 1 ranking — and she held tight. The daughter of Polish immigrants to Denmark, she speaks six languages — including Russian and Swedish — and keeps busy off the court by playing the piano and baking with her mom.Streeter Lecka—Getty Images
2014 French Open - Day Three
Yanina Wickmayer of Belgium didn’t pick up a tennis racket until she turned 9. That year her mother died of cancer, and Yanina’s father introduced her to the sport as a distraction from her grief.Matthew Stockman—Getty Images
2014 US Open - Day 2
Victoria Azarenka knows that her notorious grunting makes Monica Seles sound tame — and she remains unapologetic about it. The 21-year-old Belarusian says the shrieking helps her accelerate and deliver more power to the ball — skills that have taken her to the quarterfinals at four Grand Slams and helped her climb to No. 4 in the world rankings in 2011. Al Bello—Getty Images
2014 US Open - Day 3
Agnieszka Radwanska What she lacks in power, she makes up for in cunning. Agnieszka Radwanska, relies on tactical accuracy and her understanding of geometry to outfox her opponents, skills that have drawn comparisons to Martina Hingis.Julian Finney—Getty Images
The Championships - Wimbledon 2013: Day Two
Bethanie Mattek-Sands Fellow players have dubbed her the “rock chick” of tennis because of her tattoos and penchant for motorcycles and the fact that she wore a black dress to her wedding. The 29-year-old brings her free-spirited ways to the court, where she wears knee-high socks and black antiglare paint.Clive Brunskill—Getty Images
2014 US Open - Day 2
Ana Ivanovic As a teenager in war-torn Yugoslavia, Ana Ivanovic practiced in the early morning to avoid bomb raids. When all the courts were destroyed, she used an abandoned swimming pool. “Tennis was definitely a distraction from the war and all of the bad things that were going on in the country at the time,” she says. Elsa—Getty Images
Day Four: The Championships - Wimbledon 2014
Samantha Stosur stumbled into tennis at the age of 6 after a flood destroyed her family’s home in Brisbane, Australia. The family — which lost everything — moved to Adelaide with just $5,000, and her parents worked round the clock running a café. To keep Stosur occupied, her older brother hit balls with her at the park, and eventually persuaded his parents to enroll Stosur in tennis lessons.Al Bello—Getty Images
Olympics Day 5 - Tennis
Vera Zvonareva Brutally honest, Vera Zvonareva’s personal website describes the “row of failures” that knocked her out of the top 10 to a lowly ranking of 42nd in 2005. By 2010, however, the 26-year-old had gone on to reach the finals of the U.S. Open and Wimbledon and had risen to No. 2 in the world — all while pursuing a degree in international economic relations in Moscow.Clive Brunskill—Getty Images
2014 US Open - Day 3
Maria Sharapova Anna Kournikova — the glamorous Muscovite who reached the semifinals at Wimbledon in 1997 — showed Russian tennis players what was possible. But it was Maria Sharapova who confirmed that they could have it all — if they worked really, really hard. She won Wimbledon at 17, went on to take titles at the U.S. Open and Australian Open and earned the No. 1 ranking on four occasions.Streeter Lecka—Getty Images
US Open Day 14
Kim Clijsters Critics have always said Kim Clijsters lacks the killer instinct that defines greats like Monica Seles and Serena Williams. She rose to No. 1 anyway. The Belgian, who won the U.S. Open in 2005 with her well-placed ground strokes, retired in 2007 so she could have a baby. But in March 2009, in the lead-up to an exhibition match at Wimbledon, Clijsters, then 25, announced that she was returning, partly to help cope with the loss of her father, who had died of skin cancer two months earlier. Matthew Stockman—Getty Images
2011 Australian Open - Day 5
Justine Henin's steely determination and cool demeanor didn’t endear her to the masses, nor did her retiring from the 2006 Australian Open final as a result of intense stomach pain. But even her critics have to respect her sublime one-handed backhand, described by John McEnroe as the best in the women’s or men’s game.Cameron Spencer—Getty Images
2014 US Open - Day 6
Serena Williams's off-court pursuits, which have included acting, launching a collection of handbags and completing 240 hours of course work to become a certified nail technician, are often dismissed by critics. But those pursuits likely account for some of her longevityJulian Finney—Getty Images
2014 US Open - Day 5
Venus Williams Before her first professional tournament, when she was just 14 and wearing cornrows, Venus Williams had the audacity to tell Sports Illustrated, “I think I can change the game.” That proved prescient. Williams — who honed her skills at a public park in Compton, Calif., while gang members guarded the grounds — brought explosive power to women’s tennis, setting a Grand Slam record with her 129-m.p.h. serve in 2007.Al Bello—Getty Images
Martina Hingis Participates In Tennis Classic Exhibition Match
Martina Hingis Drawing on her tactical instinct and unmatched finesse, Martina Hingis championed an elegant style of play that has slowly been replaced by power — and a whole lot of grunting. Born in present-day Slovakia, she clutched her first racket at the age of 2 and entered her first tournament at the age of 4.Tomas Benedikovic—Isifa/Getty Images
Monica Seles Born in Serbia, Monica Seles, now 40, burst onto the professional tennis scene as a 14-year-old and by the end of her first year on the tour had climbed to No. 6 in the world. Known for her aggressive game and for introducing the grunt to women’s tennis, she became the youngest player ever to win the French Open in 1990, when she defeated Germany’s Steffi Graf, the reigning queen of tennis, in straight sets.Simon Bruty—Getty Images
Arantxa Sanchez Vicaro's ability to chase down the most distant ball earned her the nickname Barcelona Bumblebee. That, coupled with her dogged clay-court style, helped her rise to No. 1 in both singles and doubles — no easy feat in an era that included greats like Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and Gabriela Sabatini. Gary M. Prior—Getty Images
Gabriela Sabatini
Gabriela Sabatini In 1985, 15-year-old Gabriela Sabatini became the youngest-ever player to reach the semifinals of the French Open and finished the year in the top 10, where she stayed for nearly a decade. Her movie-star looks turned her into one of South America’s biggest stars — the media referred to her as the Pearl of the Pampas and the Divine Argentine — and she displayed another kind of beauty on the court, where her topspin tricks and sweeping backhand remain legendary. Bob Martin—Getty Images
Steffi Graf's father, a car-insurance salesman from Brühl, Germany, taught her how to swing a racket in their living room when she turned 3. She never stopped. Although Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert hit the ball hard, Graf brought new explosiveness to the game: her forehand remains one of the greatest shots in women’s tennis. She contested 31 Grand Slam singles finals and won 22 of them.Pascal Rondeau—Getty Images
1981 US Open Tennis Championship
Tracy Austin In 1979, 16-year-old Tracy Austin became the youngest player ever to win the U.S. Open when she defeated four-time defending champion Chris Evert 6-4, 6-3. Austin’s deep and unerring ground strokes led her to the title at Flushing Meadows again in 1981, and despite recurring sciatica, she intermittently held the No. 1 ranking.Focus On Sport/Getty Images
1981 US Open Tennis Championship
Martina Navratilova Born in Prague, Martina Navratilova wanted to conquer the tennis world, and she knew she had a better shot at doing that in the U.S. than in communist Czechoslovakia. So during the 1975 U.S. Open, American authorities helped her defect, the Czech government subsequently stripped her of her citizenship, and she went on to dominate women’s tennis, winning 18 Grand Slam singles titles.Focus On Sport/Getty Images
Chris Evert - File Photos
Chris Evert With her girl-next-door looks and blond locks, Chris Evert earned the nickname America’s Sweetheart and became one of the first tennis celebrities of the TV era. Born in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1954, she had a traditional feminine deportment that made parents more comfortable with their daughters’ taking up the sport, and her rivalry with Martina Navratilova fueled interest in the women’s game throughout the 1970s and ’80s.Paul Natkin—WireImage/Getty Images
1979 US Open Tennis Championship
Evonne Goolagong The daughter of a poor Aboriginal sheep shearer, Evonne Goolagong shot down the notion that tennis stars had to be groomed at the country club. Born in 1951 — 16 years before Australia even recognized Aborigines in its census — she took up the sport after an encouraging neighbor spotted her peering through the fence at a local court.Focus On Sport/Getty Images
Virginia Wade
Virginia Wade The daughter of a British archdeacon, Virginia Wade, now 68, took up tennis as a child growing up in South Africa and honed her game when she moved back to England at 15.Bob Thomas—Getty Images
Rosemary Casals - Wimbeldon
Rosie Casals now 65, entered tennis as an outsider and a long shot: she was the 5-ft.-2 daughter of immigrants to the U.S. from El Salvador. “The other kids had nice tennis clothes, nice rackets, nice white shoes, and came in Cadillacs,” Casals once told People. “I felt stigmatized because we were poor.” She got over it — and she forced the rest of the tennis world to as well.Ed Lacey—Popperfoto/Getty Images
Court At Wimbledon
Margaret Court Born to poor parents in New South Wales, Australia, Margaret Court, now 71, grew up with an inferiority complex. Her family didn’t have a television or a car, and her first tennis racket was fashioned from the stakes of an old wooden fence. She eventually turned it into gold. Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Billie Jean King - Wimbledon
Billie Jean King After winning Wimbledon in 1968, the men’s champion, Rod Laver, walked away with $4,800. Billie Jean King, the women’s champion, left with just $1,800. At other events, the gap in pay was even wider. King — who won 129 career titles, including 12 Grand Slam single titles — fought to change that. Ed Lacey—Popperfoto/Getty Images

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com