Raymond Moore pictured handing a trophy to Serena Williams Image Credit: AFP

Los Angeles: Indian Wells tournament director Raymond Moore quit under heavy fire on Monday after he said women players owe their success to men, sparking a furious gender row that has divided the sport.

Moore stepped down as a backlash led by Serena Williams and Martina Navratilova gathered pace, following his comments that women in tennis "ride on the coat-tails of the men".

"Ray let me know that he has decided to step down from his roles as CEO and tournament director effective immediately," the event's owner, software billionaire Larry Ellison, said on the tournament website.

Moore, a 69-year-old former player from South Africa, had earlier apologised for his "extremely poor taste and erroneous" remarks about the Women's Tennis Association (WTA).

But despite his resignation, the controversy looks set to rumble on after Novak Djokovic, the men's world number one, said male players deserved more prize money than the women.

Djokovic added that he has "tremendous respect" for women in tennis "especially as they have to "go through a lot of different things that we (men) don't have to go through. You know, the hormones and different stuff".

"What a mess," tweeted women's tennis legend Navratilova. "Moore totally blew it and Novak - really?"

Navratilova also raised the notion of a boycott of Indian Wells, which has only just welcomed back both Williams sisters for the first time in 15 years after a racially charged crowd incident in 2001.

"It would be hard to imagine any women to want to go and play at Indian Wells if Moore stays as the tournament director," she said, according to the BBC.

 Moore had told reporters in Indian Wells: "You know, in my next life, when I come back, I want to be someone in the WTA because they ride on the coat-tails of the men.

"They don't make any decisions, and they are lucky. They are very, very lucky.

"If I was a lady player, I'd go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport."

He poured fuel on the fire by saying the WTA has some "very attractive" players. When asked if he meant physically attractive or competitively attractive, he replied: "Both.

"They're physically attractive and competitively attractive... they have quite a few very, very attractive players."

The heads of the WTA and the men's tour, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) lined up to criticise Moore, and world number one Serena Williams called his remarks "offensive".

"You know, there's only one way to interpret that," she said. "Get on your knees, which is offensive enough, and thank a man... we, as women, have come a long way. We shouldn't have to drop to our knees at any point."

The row is just the latest to hit tennis in what has been a troubled year for the sport, which has also been rocked by revelations over doping and corruption.

This month Russia's Maria Sharapova, rated as the world's richest athlete, revealed a positive test for a banned substance which looks likely to result in a ban from the sport.

Tennis was also engulfed in a match-fixing controversy during the Australian Open in January after bombshell reports alleged the problem was widespread.

Women receive equal prize money at top events including Indian Wells and the four Grand Slams, although they often earn less at other tournaments than comparative men's competitions.

While top-ranked Williams and Djokovic both won three Grand Slams and had similar winning percentages last year, Williams was awarded $10.6 million in prize money while Djokovic pocketed $21.6 million.