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Sharapova, Serena Williams Rebuff Attack on Equal Pay for Women

Former Wimbledon champions Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams today rejected calls for men's tennis players to be paid more than women.

The U.S. Open was the first major to offer equal prize money to men and women in 1973, the year 39-time Grand Slam champion Billie Jean King founded the Women’s Tennis Association. Wimbledon was the last Grand Slam event to follow suit, in 2007, after a decades-long campaign by King and top players including five-time champion Venus Williams.

Women players at Wimbledon this week have been fielding questions about equal prize money after Gilles Simon reignited the debate. The No. 13 seed told French media that men’s tennis is “more attractive” to watch and that men play more sets and therefore should be paid more. He was elected last weekend to a two-year term on the player council of the men’s tour.

“No matter what anyone says, or the criticisms that we get, despite everything else I’m sure there are a few more people that watch my matches than his,” French Open champion and Wimbledon top seed Sharapova told reporters. She was speaking after she beat Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria in three sets on Court 1, the second show court at the All England Club.

Simon, who’s never got past the quarterfinals of a major, earlier today lost his second-round match to Belgium’s Xavier Malisse in straight sets on Court 3. In his press conference afterwards, the Frenchman stood by his comments.

“My point was that I have the feeling that men’s tennis is actually more interesting than women’s tennis,” Simon said.

‘Way Hotter’

Serena Williams doesn’t agree.

“Definitely a lot more people are watching Maria than Simon,” she said after beating Hungarian qualifier Melinda Czink on Centre Court in straight sets. “She’s way hotter than he is. Women’s tennis I think is really awesome. It’s a great fight. We fought for years with Billie Jean King, and Venus as well, really set the pattern on what we should do.”

Since winning Wimbledon in 2004 at age 17, Russia’s Sharapova has become the world’s highest-paid female athlete, with annual earnings of around $26 million according to Forbes magazine.

Men play best-of-five sets in the four Grand Slam tournaments, while women play best-of-three. Williams dismissed Simon’s claim that therefore women should be paid less.

‘Progressive Society’

“I started playing tennis at two years old,” Williams, a 13-time major singles champion, said. “I’m sure he started when he was two years old, as well. I worked just as hard as he did. I’m sure he continues to work hard as I work hard, as well as everyone that’s on a professional level. We are all very professional and all work hard.”

“Tennis, including the Grand Slams, is aligned with our modern, progressive society when it comes to the principle of equality,” Stacey Allaster, chief executive officer and chairman of the women’s WTA tour, said in an e-mailed statement. “I can’t believe in this day and age that anyone can still think otherwise. This type of thinking is exactly why the WTA was founded and we will always fight for what’s right.”

In an interview in 2010, King said she regretted not having been able to set up a joint tour for men and women. Several attempts to join the two were turned down by the men’s tour, she said. Although the WTA Tour and ATP World Tour held 20 combined events in 2011, they remain separate entities to this day.

To contact the reporter on this story: Danielle Rossingh at Wimbledon through the London sports desk at drossingh@bloomberg.net

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