Row erupts over claims women tennis players should earn less

Novak Djokovic from Serbia returns the ball to Malek Jaziri from Tunisia during the third day of Dub

Novak Djokovic from Serbia returns the ball to Malek Jaziri from Tunisia during the third day of Dubai Tennis Championships in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili) - Credit: AP

The issue of equal pay in sport has divided participants and fans for years.

But seldom has the topic been so hotly argued over than after a senior tennis official smashed a volley into the heart of the debate.

World number one Novak Djokovic thinks men should be paid more prize money than women, suggesting they should have better rewards as they have more spectators.

Nine-times Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova hit back saying she would not be surprised if women players boycotted the Indian Wells tournament in the light of the row which engulfed the competition.

The polarised views from two of tennis's all-time greats came after Raymond Moore, chief executive of the Indian Wells tournament, said of women tennis players: 'They ride on the coat-tails of the men. They don't make any decisions and they are lucky.'

He also said: 'If I was a lady player, I'd go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport.'

Moore has since apologised for his remarks but not before the row intensified.

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Djokovic said he had the utmost respect for the women's game and understood how much they had worked for equal pay, but said he thought the men drew the larger crowds.

The sport became the first to offer equal pay at the US Open in 1973 when pressure from its winner, Billie Jean King, forced US tennis officials to rethink their prize pot.

King, a campaigner for sexual equality, said: 'He is wrong on so many levels. Every player contributes to our success.'

And 21-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams called the statement 'offensive' and 'very, very inaccurate', while Navratilova added that Djokovic 'clearly doesn't understand' the issue.

However, according to BBC Tennis correspondent Russell Fuller, the Serb's opinion is shared by many other male tennis players.

In 2014, both Djokovic and Williams won one Grand Slam, seven competitions and the year-end World Tour finals. Djokovic earned £9.9m, whereas his female counterpart won just £6.5m. It is clear that while the Grand Slams do offer equal pay, there is still disproportion between the men's ATP Tour and the women's WTA Tour.

Derek Perry, head tennis coach at the East Anglia Tennis & Squash Club, said the men's and women's games should be looked at as two separate sports and that comparison was unfair. 'In the Grand Slams, the men will generally spend longer on court. If you had two people working in a factory and one was working longer hours for the same pay, that would be unfair,' he said.

A BBC survey in 2014 found that of the 35 sports that paid prize money, 25 offered equal pay to both genders.

The main disparities were found in sports such as football, cricket and golf, which have a predominantly male following at an elite level.

Great Yarmouth-born squash world number one Laura Massaro has been instrumental in bridging the gap between men and women's prize funds.

She has seen the British Nationals offer equal prize money, but received less than half (£12,300) of compatriot Nick Matthew's £28,600 prize fund for winning the Squash World Championships in 2013.