Equality? Yes. Five Sets For Women? No

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NEW HAVEN — Petra Kvitova recoiled at the question. Should women play five sets in the tennis majors like the men?

"Five sets?" said Kvitova, the 2011 Wimbledon champion and No. 2 seed at the 2012 New Haven Open. "I'm so glad we are not playing five. It's enough for us, like this [best-of-three]."

Kvitova is dead on. Three sets are enough to prove that women are equal.

Yet on an August Monday when Augusta National joined the 20th century by inviting two women to become members of its private golf club, it also struck me that equality does not always mean fair and just or even appropriate.

The announcement that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore were asked and have agreed to wear the green jackets of Augusta National should be greeted with only one response: "About freaking time." That's an easy one.

Men can have their poker clubs. Women can have their sewing clubs. Or vice versa, whatever suits them. Still, the home of the Masters also understood the greater inevitability. When a private club invites the world to its grounds for one of the most public weeks in athletics, the rules of society change.

Augusta National was never going to allow itself to appear as if it was bullied into doing the right thing. It wasn't going to bow to Martha Burk. It wasn't going to bow to sponsors. It's a rich, powerful, private club, damn it, and it would do it on its terms, including making an announcement as casually as if it was refurbishing Hogan Bridge.

Maybe it took the hypocrisy of Virginia Rometty's being the first IBM chief executive not getting an invitation to persuade Augusta to open its doors. Or maybe not. The truth is that attendance and television ratings were never hurt by the admissions controversy. Neither the vox populi nor the tee box populi were nearly as interested as many of us wanted to believe.

And as well meaning as Burk's protest was across the street from the 2003 Masters, the truth is that only 75 protesters and three times as many cops and reporters showed up that April day for a carnival of hecklers, fame seekers and Klan members.

It was an embarrassing afternoon, not to mention the first and only time I was invited to join another exclusive club.

"You want to sign up," a Ku Klux Klan member asked after lecturing me that the media is "full of trash and Jews."

"I'm Catholic."

"Forget it," he said.

So maybe Augusta National just got tired of being wrong. And maybe it's best to allow Augusta, steeped in tradition, to surrender with some honor. Humiliation in the name of social justice to the point of ruining a golf tournament never struck me as an entirely noble or necessary gesture … especially when 99 percent of us — men and women — will never get an invitation to join Augusta.

Yet something struck me while was listening to Burk talk to Colin Cowherd on ESPN. Burke talked about all the death threats she received when engulfed in the Augusta controversy a decade ago. She said as soon she hung up from the interview, she'd be able to go to her email and there'd be 50 threats of some sort awaiting her.

It hit me that no matter how large of a majority realizes that equality is the right thing, there always is going to be a segment of knuckleheads who want nothing to do with equality, fairness or decency.

There must be equal opportunity. There must be equal athletic inclusion. There should be equality in the responsibilities of sportsmanship and commitment.

That doesn't mean that the games and styles have to be entirely the same. Men jump higher. Men run faster. Men are stronger. Yet in 30 years of covering sports, I've got to say women are stronger in the spirit of group dynamics and execution of teamwork.

Different ground strokes for different folks. Except for the epic Nadal-Federer-Djokovic epics, I rather watch women's tennis. On the other hand, I'd rather watch men's golf every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Yet it confounds me that we still have some men making fun of women's basketball because they rarely dunk. It confounds me why we have some men pointing out that Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird could never play in the NBA. Just go to the comment sections on ESPN.com and immerse yourself in anonymous garbage. The coarse, direct comparisons strike me as mean as they are naïve.

And it confounds me that we have tennis players like Gilles Simon saying earlier this summer that men should be paid more than the women. Wimbledon became the last major tournament to give equal pay in 2007, and if you think it's an issue dead and gone, consider that Goran Ivanisevic came out in support of Simon. Andy Murray and Andy Roddick didn't exactly rebuke Simon with their comments.

Simon said at Wimbledon that men should be paid more because "men's tennis is ahead of women's tennis" and "men spend twice as long on court as women do at Grand Slams." Maria Sharapova shot back that "I'm sure there are a few more people that watch my matches than his."

Simon later said he never argued that women should play five sets, but it raises the question: How could women stay out on the court longer otherwise?

Look, there are women who could play matches of 15 sets. The argument here is whether women of elite tennis skills can play five sets at that same elite level? Through a long two-week tournament, I'd argue that their play would be diminished. Maybe a five-set final could bring an epic conclusion, but that also would mean the parameters would change from the rest of the tournament. Is that competitively equitable?

Caroline Wozniacki, coincidentally enough, has been invited to Augusta National. Of course, the invitation was from her boyfriend Rory McIlroy to caddie for him during the Masters Par-3 Contest. McIlroy, in fact, spent part of Sunday driving tennis balls inside the Yale Bowl before heading to Long Island to play The Barclays at Bethpage Black.

"I feel like I'm in good shape and would be able to play five sets," said Wozniacki, the No. 1 seed at New Haven shooting for a historic fifth consecutive victory here. "I think also the level of tennis would probably go down the further you go in the tournament."

"But if the rules came out we'd have to play five, I wouldn't say anything. I would just be OK, let the strongest person win."

Strongest, not the best. Years from now, maybe athletic physiology will have evolved to the point where my argument will seem silly. But in 2012, I say equal pay for three sets.

"We want to show our best on the court," said Kvitova, a Czech in her broken English. "It's not only in the tennis, but in the part of life that the women go in the same way as the men."

I take that to mean equality is good, but equality also can be as complicated as Petra Kvitova made it sound. In the meantime, rejoice, rich and powerful women everywhere. And pick out a green jacket.

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