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UK's Blair backs Venus Williams over equal pay

Written by: Staff

LONDON, June 28 (Reuters) The battle to win equal pay for women's tennis won a prominent new supporter today - and Wimbledon champion Venus Williams thanked British Prime Minister Tony Blair for backing the campaign.

Blair was asked in parliament if he was aware that 30 years after his Labour Party introduced the equal pay act, the women's winner at Wimbledon was getting 30,000 pounds (54,640 dollars) less than the winner of the men's singles.

Pressed by fellow Labourite Janet Anderson, Blair said he backed the equal pay campaign. ''I endorse it fully,'' he told deputies.

Britain's Sports Minister Tessa Jowell had already written to the All England Club chairman Tim Phillips urging him to end the disparity.

On the day that Venus stepped on court to defend her Wimbledon crown, the American was thrilled with Blair's endorsement.

''The fact that Mr Blair finds this cause extremely important really gives credence to the free world that this is something that really makes sense and something that needs to be done,'' she said.

''It's really very exciting because this is something I feel very strongly about,'' she told reporters after her bloodless 6-1 6-0 first round win against compatriot Bethanie Mattek.

Asked if lopsided matches like that hurt her cause, Venus said ''I like winning easy.'' Wimbledon is one of two Grand Slam tournaments not to offer equal pay.

While the Australian and US Opens make no discrepancy between the men and women, the French Open gives the same prize money to its singles champions but other women competitors are given less than their male counterparts.

At Wimbledon, the prize pot available for women, is 4.4 million pounds (8.11 million dollars) while the men will compete for 5.2 million.

The issue has long incensed top female players, including Williams and Billie Jean King, who won 20 Wimbledon titles.

At her post-match press conference, Williams was asked what she felt about former champion John McEnroe agreeing with her argument for equal pay.

''It's very nice to have a world champion like him, someone who has a respected opinion, to speak up on the women's behalf.'' ''I understand he has four daughters also. I think if he were ever to see his four daughters do anything in tennis or secularly in the work place anywhere in the world, he'd want them to be treated just as well as his sons.'' REUTERS SHR RAI2222

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