ROME — Behind dark glasses, his face dominated by a Fu Manchu mustache, Ion Tiriac betrays little emotion from his seat on the court at the Madrid Open, a tournament he owns. But when he speaks, he leaves no doubt about his views on tennis.
His tournament is one of three events outside the Grand Slam that pay men’s and women’s players equally, but in an interview in Madrid last week he joined the dissent within tennis leaders over the theme of price equality.
“I like women much more than men,” said Tiriac, a 76-year-old Romanian billionaire. “I’ve been doing this all my life. The longer their legs are, the more beautiful I find them. Even in tennis, they are friendly, etc. But I don’t think status is an equal prize in money. Maybe they deserve more? Pay women more if they deserve it.
“But I think we have to calculate how much money men put on the table, and how much money women put on the table, with TV rights. Because otherwise we have to compensate, and compensate, and compensate, and you can’t compensate forever. That’s why it’s a great sport, but I don’t think women can complain about not making enough money.
Tiriac said he was “discussing” with the WTA the viability of continuing to offer equal pay, a proposition he considers particularly untenable due to the pay increases demanded by the ATP.
“If I also increase women’s tennis, I’m broke and I don’t know how to organize a tennis event,” Tiriac said. “And I’ve been competing in tennis since the ’60s.
“To say they are equal – they are not equal. I mean, again, I prefer women on the field, they look good on the field. Even Federer, who is very elegant, I prefer an elegant woman, not Mr. Federer. But they don’t bring the same thing.
Tiriac, the 1970 French Open doubles champion and inductee into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2013 for his off-court activities and promotional work, is not the first leader of a major tennis tournament to tie remuneration to declare men’s and women’s tennis unequal. This year. In March, Raymond Moore, tournament director of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, aroused the anger of players and circuit officials when he said that female players “benefit” from men’s success.
“If I was a player, I would get on my knees every night and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they carried this sport,” Moore said.
Less than 48 hours later, Moore resigned. Tiriac said Moore’s mistake was trying to use humor instead of mathematics.
“Ray Moore mostly made it a joke, like he said,” Tiriac said. “I do something different: I put it into numbers. If men give me 40 dollars from television and women give me seven dollars, it’s not the same. Finished.”
He admitted it would be acceptable to pay the women equally once they reached the semi-finals.
“Maybe we will have to pay the first four, from the semi-final and the final, as much as the men,” he said. “But maybe the rest is not so interesting, to pay them the same kind of money.
“I have over $11 million in prize money for each of them: almost $6 million for the men and $6 million for the women. And I can’t continue like this forever. And everyone would understand at least that. It is very simple.”
In an interview Monday at the Italian Open in Rome, which pays women only 56 percent of the men’s total prize money, Steve Simon, chief executive of the WTA, responding to Tiriac’s comments, singled out the Open of Madrid as a leader in equal pay. ahead, historically.
“Tennis has done an incredible job, I think, in terms of prize equality, through the Grand Slams and these big combined events – and Madrid has been one of the leaders in that process, stepping up,” Simon said. “We have a sanction, an agreement, which reflects equality of price, and we fully hope that it will be honored, and that Madrid will continue to show the leadership that it has always done.”
Simon acknowledged the disparity in revenue generated by the ATP and WTA’s respective television deals, but said the disparity was only part of the tournament equation.
“We still have work to do, and we’re going to work on it, but price equality goes way beyond just the broadcast revenue situation,” Simon said. “This sanction also brought great value to the Mutua Madrid Open. He is promoted as men and women, all in favor of this brand and this product, and he sells them as one. And so, on that basis, equality is certainly a good thing.
“I think if he lost the women’s sanction and she wasn’t there, the event wouldn’t have the status it has today.”
Simon expressed dismay that Tiriac cited the players’ legs as a particular point of attraction.
“Anytime you start saying you like something because of looks rather than talent, I struggle with that,” Simon said. “People are entitled to their opinions there, but it’s definitely not something we tolerate.” I’m always disappointed when I hear comments like this because our athletes are defending themselves and their athletic abilities.
Simon, who also had to deal with Maria Sharapova’s problems positive doping control and increased monitoring of match-fixing since take the lead in the women’s circuit last fall, said his first year on the job “definitely hasn’t been boring.” But he lamented that equal pay continues to be a subject of debate, with tennis leaders regularly diverting their message.
“Anytime the topic comes up, it’s just disappointing,” Simon said. “It’s a subject that has been settled. Price equality is a settled issue. Like I said, tennis has done a wonderful job supporting it, and in some ways better than business. I think it should be something that we are proud of and continue to hang our hat on.
Venus Williams, who led the women’s players to win their campaign for equal prizes at Wimbledon in 2007, said Monday after his first-round match that it was necessary to continue talking about equality issues while the opposition remained.
“I think as long as people think that women are not equal to men, it’s a conversation that needs to be had,” Williams said.
But she also expressed a certain weariness with the frequency with which the subject has been rehashed this year.
“It seems like there’s always something,” she says. “I just want a quiet year at this point. Can’t we just play tennis?