Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Epic ends equality debate

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There are two words for all those plonkers, most of them men, who can't stand the fact women tennis players earn the same amount of money as males: Kuznetsova and Schiavone.

It raises its ugly head every year - the hoary old debate about whether women should be paid as much as the men because (a) they only play three sets instead of five; (b) they aren't as good as the blokes and (c) there is far more interest in (and therefore revenue derived from) the men.

If you haven't seen the Svetlana Kuznetsova-Francesca Schiavone clash from last week's Australian Open, look it up and watch it in its massive, compelling entirety - particularly that enthralling last set. Then tell me women players shouldn't get equal pay.

If the Women's Tennis Association are smart, they will keep the video of this classic match and use it as their flagbearer. It wasn't even that it was the longest women's match in grand slam history, lasting four hours and 44 minutes; with that 16-14 final set taking over three hours on its own. It wasn't about statistics or numbers.

It was raw-boned, aggressive, tenacious, dramatic, never-say-die sport. These two were friends but also enemies. They knew each other well offcourt but fell out when Kuznetsova had declined to shake hands after a previous encounter.

That had been patched up but it was clear neither of these two wanted to lose to the other - Kuznetsova, supposedly the choker; an under-achiever in spite of winning two grand slam events; and Schiavone, the surprise winner of last year's French Open at the ripe old age of 30 - dismissed as unlikely ever to do anything like that again and enduring a spell where she seemed to be fulfilling the prophecy.

There wasn't a lot of choking; nor was there any tame surrender from someone whose flame had flickered briefly; just the once. This was a scampering, hot-fisted, knock-'em-down, drag-'em-out duel between two players who approached this match as if it was anything but sport.

This was honour, reputation, pride, determination and a whole lot of speed, muscle and skill. Just the sort of qualities we normally attach to blokes.

Kuznetsova spent the last set, if not limping, then gingerly padding about (between points) on blisters burning holes in her feet. Schiavone came into the match with a thigh injury and bandage - but still chased every ball wide and far; as if the entire population of Italy depended on it.

This was no boring go-with-serve, bash-fest. No, for that, you had to go to the men's tennis - where Marin Cilic outlasted former Heineken Open champ John Isner in another long battle; four hours and 33 minutes, to be precise. But there were no long rallies here; just three breaks of serve in the whole, boring thing; big serves and big returns; hit or miss, often the latter. No sweet science; just ker-plonk, ker-bash and ker-rist, go back to the women's tennis, please...

To be fair, neither Cilic nor Isner are anywhere near the quality of the big four - Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. But, under the logic of those who naysay the women, Cilic and Isner should be paid less too. Well, they're not as good, are they? Dock their pay.

It's a ridiculous argument and one which Kuznetsova and Schiavone might even have (finally) laid to rest. Just as one seemed to gain an advantage, the other would come roaring back.

Just as one seemed doomed, so she would find from somewhere within her wilting body a last drop of defiance and produce a shot of touch and finesse that dropped the jaw and slapped the palms together in appreciation of two warriors who just would not die.

When Schiavone finally won, the two shared an embrace that said it all - victors, losers, comrades, rivals; they knew they had produced something special.

She was astonishing, Schiavone. I'm not sure I have ever seen, man or woman, a player run down so many balls that looked impossible to retrieve. The woman must have the heart of an elk.

She scuttled from side to side of the court like a maddened cockroach, clinging to her tennis life just as doomsday merchants predict that, when the nuclear holocaust finally arrives, it will be the durable bugs that survive.

That's the other thing that marked this encounter. Make no mistake, a lot of the appeal of women's tennis is not politically correct. It has much to do with the pleasure men (and women) get out of looking at women.

That's why Maria Sharapova earns millions outside of the game. It draws the TV audiences to the tournaments. Sex sells, make no mistake. This very newspaper ran a front page piece based on the fact Sharapova got an early night on New Year's Eve (the day before Auckland's ASB tournament).

Gasp. Shock, horror, probe, whew - what a scorcher.

It's the same for the men. There are plenty of women, don't be fooled, who get pleasure from surveying the male form and who have a silent squeak of pleasure every time Rafa pulls his shorts free from his, er, hindquarters.

The two genders appear on the same stage - how many other sports can say that? The women, like the men, play over 40 weeks a year - so much that in recent times the injury list has threatened to overcome some slam events.

But to go back to Schiavone and Kuznetsova... these weren't glam clothes horses in lacy numbers that made them look like the fairy on the top of the Christmas tree. James McOnie would never stalk either of them. Plain is perhaps the best description.

No, they just gave us sport at its best; tennis at its best - and every reason why women players should be paid the same as men.

- Herald on Sunday

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