LONDON For an institution which prides itself on upholding age old traditions, Wimbledon finally dragged itself into the 21st century on Thursday by burying one of its archaic customs.
The All England Club bowed to pressure and announced that it would offer equal prize money to women and men at the grasscourt grand slam for the first time at this year's championships.
Four years after players were excused from bowing and curtseying to members of the Royal Family on Center Court, Wimbledon has dispensed with one of its more unpopular practices by wiping out the discrepancy in pay offered to male and female competitors.
"I'm thrilled that they've decided to take a very decisive step. It makes the strongest possible statement for Wimbledon and reinforces their position as great leaders in the game and as a very progressive organization," WTA Tour chief Larry Scott told Reuters in an interview.
The move brought the tournament in line with the pay policy of the Australian and U.S. Opens, who have long offered the same prize pot to both sexes.
The French Open remains the only major not to offer equal prize money throughout the rounds although singles champions are awarded with the same amount.
Wimbledon threw open its gates to professional players for the first time in 1968 but it took the tournament almost 40 years to decide women contribute just as much as the men to the popularity of the championships.
The All England Club gradually reduced the margin over the years, but had stubbornly held out against equal prizes as a matter of principle.
Billie Jean King's reward for capturing the 1968 title was 750 pounds ($1,463) while Australian Rod Laver received 2,000 pounds for his triumph.
While Laver received 37.5 percent more than King on that occasion, the pay gap between 2006 champions Roger Federer and Amelie Mauresmo equated to just 4.6 percent.
The club had cited surveys showing that men give better value as they contest best-of-five set matches, while the women play best of three.
However such theories were blown apart when Venus Williams came from match point down to win the longest ever Wimbledon women's final in 2005 and Mauresmo came out on top in a thrilling three-set finale against Justine Henin last July.
Federer, in contrast, avoided any such drama and claimed the men's crown over the past two seasons with sets to spare.
While Mauresmo was presented with a check for 625,000 pounds last July for her monumental effort, Federer still took home 30,000 pounds more than the Frenchwoman even though he had enjoyed a relatively smoother outing against Rafael Nadal.
With women's tennis attracting a growing number of sponsors and with players such as 2004 Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova enjoying more column inches than her male counterparts, the All England Club realized its argument was obsolete.
The view that top women rarely get tested in the opening rounds was shown up by Sharapova coming within two points of defeat in her first-round match at the Australian Open last month, while Mauresmo was beaten in the last 16.
"I think when you've got men and women playing at the same tournament, it is ludicrous to have a difference in pay. It would be setting an example to the rest of society in general to have equal prize money," said John McEnroe, three-times former men's singles champion.
King added: "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."
While Thursday's announcement ended an annual debate that has raged in southwest London for decades, the onus will now be on the French Open to follow suit.