WIMBLEDON, England – Maria Sharapova had a simple retort to the notion that men should be paid more than women at Grand Slam tournaments. Serena Williams just laughed and covered her face with one hand before delivering her answer.
Two of the biggest stars of women's tennis didn't hold back Thursday when responding to comments made this week by 13th-ranked Gilles Simon — a new member of the ATP Player Council — that has rekindled the debate over equal prize money at Wimbledon.
While Simon defended his viewpoint Thursday and added a majority of male players agree with him — but are afraid to speak out — Sharapova offered a clear answer to why she deserves the money she earns.
"I'm sure there are a few more people that watch my matches than his," she said.
Sharapova beat Tsvetana Pironkova in a tough three-set match on a packed Court 1 on Thursday to reach the third round at Wimbledon, while Simon lost in straight sets to Xavier Malisse on Court 3.
On a more serious note, Sharapova added: "Look, we women have fought so long to get equal prize money. It was a big challenge and nobody really supported us. It's been a few years since we've gotten that. We're all really proud of it, and we continue to build the sport and make it bigger."
Sharapova's comments were relayed to Williams after her match on Centre Court.
"You know, I can't bite my tongue," Williams said. "Definitely a lot more people are watching Maria than Simon. She's way hotter than he is. Women's tennis, I think, is really awesome.
"It's a great fight. We fought for years with Billie Jean King, and Venus (Williams) as well, really set the pattern on what we should do."
In 2007, Wimbledon became the last Grand Slam tournament to give equal prize money to the men's and women's singles champions. The French Open introduced it a year earlier, copying the U.S. Open and Australian Open who have had it for years.
However, the Frenchman believes male players provide more entertainment during matches and should be compensated accordingly.
Defending his viewpoint Thursday, Simon claimed "everybody in the locker room" agreed with him.
"The 128 players (in the men's singles draw at Wimbledon) think just like me, that's for sure. Just ask them," he said. "Maybe they can't say it. ... Maybe they will lose, I don't know, $2 million on the contracts if they say that.
"My point of view was just about the entertainment. If you just watch how it is working in every other sport, even for the singers, you're just paid by the public directly. My point was that I have the feeling that men's tennis is actually more interesting than women's tennis. As in any business or anything, you just have to be paid just about that. It's not because we play five sets and they are playing three."
Simon also noted that Wimbledon charges more for tickets to the men's singles final than the women's. This year, for example, a seat at Centre Court for the men's final costs $185, while tickets are about $160 for the women's.
Publicly, male players have been slow to back Simon.
"It's just a matter of who believes what, and then that is an endless debate," Roger Federer said after his second-round win on Wednesday.
Malisse said he shared Simon's view but "I'd rather not get into it. I'd rather he gets into it."
Andy Roddick said the whole debate should not become "a gender issue" and that tennis is a business like any other.
"I'm sure there's a way to figure out who people are coming to watch," Roddick said. "I'm sure there's TV ratings to look at. I'm sure there are ample numbers out there to dissect. As any business goes, you look at those numbers and then decide where it goes from there."
Andy Murray said "there's a lot of things the guys do agree on," and pointed out that it's easier for women to play both singles and doubles at the Grand Slams because they play fewer sets.
At the Grand Slam tournaments, men play best-of-five-set matches; women play best-of-three. At most other events, all matches for both genders are best-of-three.
"It's not always just about equal pay, it's about the way the men's and women's tournaments differ," he said.
Simon faced a series of pointed questions from reporters after his loss, with one asking whether he felt he had delivered an entertaining performance in falling in straight sets.
"That doesn't change anything," said Simon, who was elected last week to a two-year term on the ATP Player Council. "My point of view doesn't depend on my result."
He added that women should be entitled to more prize money than men if the women's game becomes "more interesting" — and didn't argue against Sharapova's point.
"Maria is more famous than me. I know it. She deserves to earn more money than me," he said.