WIMBLEDON, England - After years of holding out against equal prize money, Wimbledon bowed to public pressure Thursday and agreed to pay women players as much as the men at the world's most prestigious tennis tournament.
The All England Club announced at a news conference that it had decided to fall into line with other Grand Slam events and offer equal pay through all rounds at this year's tournament.
"Tennis is one of the few sports in which women and men compete in the same event at the same time," club chairman Tim Phillips said. "We believe our decision to offer equal prize money provides a boost for the game as a whole and recognizes the enormous contribution that women players make to the game and to Wimbledon.
"In short, good for tennis, good for women players and good for Wimbledon."
Last year, men's champion Roger Federer received $1.170 million and women's winner Amelie Mauresmo got $1.117 million.
The U.S. Open and Australian Open have paid equal prize money for years. The French Open paid the men's and women's champions the same for the first time last year, although the overall prize fund remained bigger for the men.
The head of the French Tennis Federation, Jean-Francois Vilotte, suggested that the French Open could follow Wimbledon's example, though no decision is expected before the federation's next meeting March 16.
Equal pay is on the agenda for that meeting.
The federation "doesn't plan to sit on the decisions of 2006," Vilotte told the AP by telephone.
Equal pay "is an important recognition of the quality and exemplarity of women's tennis," he said.
Phillips said the Wimbledon committee met Monday and agreed unanimously "that the time is right to bring this subject to a logical conclusion and eliminate the difference."
He said "broader social factors" played a part in the decision.
"This is a private tennis club," Phillips said. "We don't have public funds given to us each year. We have to justify the decisions we make. This year we've made our judgment and judged it on what we believe to be the best for Wimbledon."
This year's prize fund hasn't been released yet, but Wimbledon said the money will be equal "across the board" for the June 25-July 8 grass-court championships, not just in the later rounds or final.
The WTA Tour has lobbied for years to get Wimbledon to drop its "Victorian-era view" and pay the women the same as the men.
"This is an historic and defining moment for women in the sport of tennis, and a significant step forward for the equality of women in our society," WTA Tour chief executive Larry Scott said. "We commend the leadership of Wimbledon for its decisive action in recognizing the progress that women's tennis has made."
The top women's players have also been at the forefront of the campaign.
"The greatest tennis tournament in the world has reached an even greater height today," three-time champion Venus Williams said. "I applaud today's decision by Wimbledon, which recognizes the value of women's tennis. The 2007 Championships will have even greater meaning and significance to me and my fellow players."
Among others welcoming the move was former six-time singles champion Billie Jean King, a pioneer for women's sports.
"This news has been a long time coming," she said. "Wimbledon is one of the most respected events in all of sports and now with women and men paid on an equal scale, it demonstrates to the rest of the world that this is the right thing to do for the sport, the tournament and the world."
The All England Club has gradually reduced the pay gap over the years, but held out against equal prizes as a matter of principle.
Phillips had cited surveys showing that men give better value than the women. The men play best-of-five set matches, while the women play best of three. Also, the women make more money overall because they also play in doubles, while the top men usually play only singles.
"It just doesn't seem right to us that the lady players could play in three events and could take away significantly more than the men's champion who battles away through these best-of-five matches," Phillips said last year. "We don't see it as an equal rights issue."
The unequal pay policy goes back 123 years. When the women started playing at Wimbledon in 1884, the female champion received a silver flower basket worth 20 guineas, while the men's winner got a gold prize worth 30 guineas.
"When you've got men and women playing at the same tournament, it is ludicrous to have a difference in pay," three-time men's champion John McEnroe told The Daily Telegraph. "It would be setting an example to the rest of society in general to have equal prize money."