The Gender Gap Should Not Exist

Ali Yaqub for The Players' Tribune

I used to be naive about tennis. When I started out, I kind of assumed that male and female pros were treated the same way. It just made sense, you know? I mean, why would it be any different? 

Then I met my girlfriend, Mirjam Björklund, and she really opened my eyes. She’s a pro tennis player as well, top 150 in the world. Last year she qualified for a WTA 250, the fifth-highest tournament level on the tour below the Slams, the WTA Finals, the WTA 1000s and the WTA 500s. 

I said to Mirjam, “Oh, great! You’ll get at least $7,000 just to be in the main draw.”

She just looked at me like I was completely new to tennis. I’ll never forget it. 

She was like, “Denis … I think it’s like a thousand dollars.”

I was like, “What are you talking about? How is that possible??”

I’m not sure everyone realizes how damaging this is for tennis. Tomorrow is International Women’s Day, and I want to talk about the gender gap. It’s so unfair. It doesn’t make sense at all. And it matters, because the expenses are crazy in tennis: You travel all year, you stay in hotels, you pay your coaching staff. The big stars don’t have to worry about it, but many on the tour are struggling just to break even. For these players, prize money is not about getting a nice lump of extra cash. It’s about survival. 

Unfortunately, it seems that if you are a female player, your chances of surviving as a pro are a lot lower … because you are a woman. 

I still don’t understand the thought process. Some say women don’t sell as many tickets, but when I go to matches the stadiums are full. I took a picture of the stands when Mirjam was playing Daria Saville at the WTA 250 in Washington, D.C., in August last year. It was packed. The game was crazy intense. The quality was unbelievable. 

Saville won the third set in a tie break. The men were playing a 500 tournament there at the same time. 

The male winners in the first round got $14,280. 

Saville got $4,100. 

It’s less than a third! And fine, they are different tournaments, but even if you compare it to the ATP 250s, the numbers don’t make sense. That WTA 250 in D.C. had players like Jessica Pegula, who was top 10 in the world. The champ made $33,200. This may sound like a lot, but imagine how many years of hard work you need to win a tournament like that. It’s insane. Then compare it to men’s tennis. 

I made the final of the ATP 250 in Seoul last September. As a runner-up, I got $100,000. 

I mean, it’s not even close!

If you are a female player, your chances of surviving as a pro are a lot lower … because you are a woman.

Denis Shapovalov

I know that tennis is by far the best major sport in the world for women in terms of the way these prizes are shared. It has grown so much over the last 30 years thanks to Billie Jean King and the formation of the WTA Players’ Council. The Slams are doing well. It’s also great that the WTA has made free hospitality mandatory and increased prize money at the Challenger tournaments. Things are definitely going in the right direction. But overall the gap is still huge. 

Maybe I’m being cynical, but I think some people might think of gender equality as mere political correctness. Deep down they don’t feel that women deserve as much, you know? And that’s terrible. 

Look at what’s been happening to the Canadian women’s national soccer team. They won a gold medal at the last Olympics and got their funding cut months before the World Cup. They’re one of the best soccer teams in the world and yet they’ve had to fight for equal support? It’s insane. 

You should be given the same opportunities regardless of gender, color, race … regardless of anything. 

This is actually kind of personal to me, and not just because of Mirjam. You see, my mother, Tessa, used to be a tennis player too. She’s the whole reason I play tennis today. 

She began teaching me tennis when I was five, at a country club in Richmond Hill, Toronto, where she worked as a coach. She had an incredible eye for tennis. To give you an example, she said that all the training I did was to get ready for when I turned 18. She wanted me to explode onto the scene against the pros. Since my hero was Roger Federer, I’d go for my shots and come to the net a lot. But when you are a kid, everyone just throws a lob over your head. It sucks, right? It’s brutal. I’d walk off the court crying, saying, “I don’t want to come to the net.” 

My mom was like, “Listen, maybe it’s painful now, but when you grow up, you’re gonna be so much more comfortable at the net than everyone else.”

Courtesy of Denis Shapovalov

Other coaches were prepping their kids for the game on Saturday. She was thinking eight years ahead. 

About the only thing I figured out on my own was to release my backhand with one hand. Big thanks to Roger for that one. I was watching him on TV going, “Mom, this is how you’re supposed to hit it.” 

When I was 10, the Canadian tennis federation invited me to a national training program. Unfortunately, my mom and I felt that the coaches there didn’t do the right kind of work. They didn’t know my game. Whenever she told them something about the way I played, they just ignored her. They wouldn’t take her advice whatsoever. It was completely pointless. After a couple of months, my results were obviously getting worse, and we decided that we just had to leave. 

Looking back at that now really sucks. She was a former Soviet national team player. She had won national championships. She had clearly trained up a pretty talented player, and she knew my game better than anyone. So why did nobody listen to her? Why wasn’t she taken seriously? 

Was it because she was a woman?

I have thought a lot about how she was treated. From a tennis perspective, it still makes no sense.

My future was very uncertain at that point, because in tennis you need practice courts and cash to pay for travel and equipment. Without the program I hardly had a place to train. And my family didn’t have any money. My parents even told me to stop sliding on the court because I was ripping holes in my shoes, and we couldn’t afford to keep buying new pairs.

When my mom was playing in the Soviet Union, she felt that she didn’t have the opportunity to fulfill her potential because of money. So she dedicated her adult life to giving me that chance. When I left the Canadian programme, she rented a warehouse and put two courts in it. This was my new academy.

When my mom was playing in the Soviet Union, she felt that she didn’t have the opportunity to fulfill her potential because of money. So she dedicated her adult life to giving me that chance.

Denis Shapovalov

It was super risky for her financially, but she wanted to build a place where I could develop my game. She invited the best players she knew in the area and began training us. All the money that the academy made went to pay for my expenses. 

Still, even with her support and the warehouse, it was super hard to turn pro. When I turned 13, I began working with a coach called Adriano, who really showed me what it took. His idol was Uncle Toni. Do I have to say more? 

He would make me come out at 11 p.m. to hit serves till past midnight. We’d be in the warehouse, where the walls were close to the lines. This is why I take the ball so early: There wasn’t space to play far back. One night I was so tired that I just began to cry. I was like, “I can’t do this anymore. Can we PLEASE go home?”

Adriano was like, “Sure, we can go home ... but then you’ll have to live with knowing that you couldn’t complete this.” 

He was forcing me to make a decision. He was like, “If you wanna be a champion, you gotta hit these serves. Roger and Rafa would hit these serves. They would stay here all night.”

Surely enough, I stayed another hour. 

Sometimes I would sleep at his place and we’d come back to the warehouse at 6 a.m. We had drills where I had to hit 10 shots in a row when he was at the net, and whether I messed up or he messed up, that didn’t matter — we’d have to start over. He would make me hit eight or nine, then he’d hit a ball that was impossible to get to, or he’d just dump it in the net. Oops. Start again. 

I’d be like, “This is so unfair.”

He would say, “Deal with it. You think Roger and Rafa are saying it’s unfair? Do you think they’re crying?”

Adriano built me up like this. He would only allow me to have 10 friends on Snapchat. He’d count. I swear to God, he really would. If I had 11 friends, I was in deep s***. 

He was like, “You can’t waste your time talking to a bunch of people.”

He would even call me at night to see if my phone was off, because he wanted to make sure that I had gone to sleep early. That was the level. 

Alex Pantling/Getty

It was brutal. But Adriano was the kind of coach that I needed to make it. In another world, a kid like me wouldn’t have been able to afford him. The only reason I was able to work with him was because he never asked for a cent. He did not want it. He just wants to be the best, and he felt that he could really help me become a top player. Adriano doesn’t coach me anymore, but he’s still with me, taking care of the day-to-day stuff. To me, he’s family. 

If lack of money and wanting to be the best wasn’t enough to fuel my fire, the lack of support from the federation did. They didn’t believe in me. They didn’t believe in Adriano. I was always hearing no from them — no trips, no expenses, no support. I was so desperate to prove them wrong.

I played every game like my career was on the line. It just mattered so much. It’s funny… If fans saw me off court they wouldn’t recognize me.  I never get angry, and I hate confrontation. But on the court, I still have this fierceness. I’ll go for everything. I’ll take the ball early as if I’m still in the warehouse.  And I can’t just turn that off.

I’m still playing like the reject who has everything to prove. Next time you see my fire and passion on the court, remember where it comes from.

Can you see now why discrimination bothers me? Can you see how hard it is to make it in tennis? Can you understand why stuff like prize money is important? I mean, I feel that I have been fighting the odds. I’m a guy. 

Can you imagine how much harder it is for women? 

I’m happy that tennis has come such a long way since I was growing up. It’s also promising to see that the WTA has just attracted more investment. But I don’t think we can be happy until it is completely equal for everyone. I’d like to see a tour where the tournaments are the same for women and men every week. Usually people are looking at the calendar going, Where are the women playing? Where are the men playing? It should just be the same.

I’d like to see a tour where the tournaments are the same for women and men every week.

Denis Shapovalov

As for prize money, anything else but complete equality is not just unfair — it also blocks participation. If female players are not being treated fairly, some of those at the lower levels may find they can’t afford to continue. Potential stars will just quit. 

And then women’s tennis really will become less “popular.” It will be shown less on TV. That would have a domino effect. And the saddest part is that it goes all the way to the kids. I was inspired by Roger, but if women’s tennis gets less exposure, the little girl in front of the TV may not think it could be a reality for her. She’ll never see her idol and go, Look at her. I want to do that. 

And that is heartbreaking. Maybe the little girl won’t turn pro after all, but that should not be because females are treated unfairly. 

So let’s give everyone the same chance. Let’s pay out the same prize money.

Let’s stop talking about reducing the gender gap. 

If we want tennis to be fair, it should not exist at all.