Australia, 27 July 2023 | Vivienne Christie
Tennis has long played a leading role in achieving gender equality.
Trailblazers like Billie Jean King and her Original Nine colleagues are famous for their courageous pursuit to ensure professional women’s players were granted the same opportunities as their male counterparts.
Prize money disparity has at last been eliminated at Grand Slam tournaments – the Australian Open first awarding equal prize money in 1984, all four Slams doing so by 2007 – and a more proportionate number of leadership roles in the sport are now occupied by women.
Alongside those positive milestones, there’s a clear understanding of the work yet to be done.
As Vicki Reid, Director of Government, Social Impact and Stakeholder Relations at Tennis Australia, points out, “Great strides have been taken in the sport, however we still have a long way to go.”
As many in the sport passionately pursue further progress, there’s also formalised commitment. With the support of a $12 million Australian Government investment, Tennis Australia’s Women and Girls Strategy (2022-2027) was developed to improve access and opportunities to achieve gender equality.
“We are committed to creating a safe and welcoming environment across all aspects of the sport,” Reid continues.
“The Women and Girls Strategy identifies inequalities, key drivers for change and assigns measurable outcomes.”
As a sport, tennis is uniquely placed to champion change. A significant proportion of globally-recognised women’s athletes are professional players, with Grand Slams and other tournaments illuminating the many opportunities in the sport.
Reid acknowledges the accompanying responsibility of that status.
“We’re in the privileged position of hosting the Australian Open, watched by over 900 million viewers each year and welcoming over 800,000 people through the gate,” she notes, explaining the broader flow-on effects.
“Tennis Australia is well positioned to champion equality and challenge societal norms and with so many female athletes being top tennis players, we can and will champion and celebrate equality beyond the sport.”
The expansive outlook is also evident in the strategy’s vision of “no limits, on and off the court.”
For Reid, who explains she grew up in a loving family who “supported every opportunity that came (her) way”, that vision reflects the importance of ensuring others can access equally positive pathways.
“I recognised that inequalities existed, however soon understood that without role models and financial means, inequalities are magnified. This is heartbreaking and I’ve always been determined to see this change,” she explains.
“It’s my hope that through this strategy, barriers are removed, and girls and women feel supported and empowered to reach their full potential on an off the court. ‘No limits’ means girls will be thinking ‘coaching is a viable career for me’ or ‘I feel safe and welcome in this club’ or ‘I am going to be president of this club’.
“Above all else, young girls will be surrounded by other girls playing tennis, with women leading in all aspects of the game.”
Already, there are multiple signs of measurable progress in achieving that outcome, including growth in the number of women holding coaching and officiating.
Reid, also a board member of the Oceania Tennis Foundation, is particularly encouraged by the expansion of leadership opportunities in that region.
“Some years ago, through a partnership with the Victorian Government we established a network of women leaders across tennis in the Oceania region. Through this, we supported each other and shared knowledge,” she relates.
“Most of all, we motivated each other to take on opportunities when self-belief was not there. I have seen women become presidents, women speak up and influence board decision-making, and women who have never spoken in public, speak in front of crowds of hundreds. It is inspiring to see these women remain in tennis leadership, inspiring the next generation.”
The establishment of the Pacific Women in Tennis – Emerging on to the World Stage program is supported by the Australian Government’s elite sports pathways program, PacificAus Sports, and further highlights many recent gains for women and girls.
Eight women, representing five separate nations, attended a formal graduation at Australian Open 2023, where they had the chance to attend the AO Inspirational Series.
Fittingly, Billie Jean King and other Original Nine members headlined the event, which celebrates many women’s achievements.
It was yet another sign of promising progress, which will unquestionably lead to further milestones.
As Reid proudly notes, “It is an overwhelming and emotional experience to see women realise their potential when opportunity is presented.”
This article first appeared in the June-July edition of Australian Tennis Magazine.
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