The Australian Open made waves earlier this week by announcing a record-breaking increase in prize money, adding $4.15 million to reach a total purse of $31.1 million. The move comes after increased pressure from the ATP, with players going so far as to threaten a boycott of the year's first Grand Slam if their demands weren't met.
Some thoughts on the announcement and what it means for both tours going forward.
1. Was a boycott really in the cards?: There's some sadistic part of me that actually hoped the Slams would call the players' bluff. Would the players really boycott the Australian Open, as they were threatening to do, in favor of possibly holding a tournament in the Middle East? Would Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray really be willing to tarnish their legacies by skipping the prestigious Slams in order to support their peers and play for more money? I don't know, maybe I just love unnecessary drama (I do), but I would have loved to see that standoff play out.
2. Let the arms race begin: It's a basic, if not flawed, working theory: If you want to be the best, you have to pay the best. In my former job as an attorney, that was definitely true. It was widely accepted that the best companies are the ones that offer the best salaries, and that's the spot in which the Slams now find themselves. The Australian Open, the first major of the year, has raised the ante and I have no doubt the rest of the Slams will follow suit.
It's hard to feel much compassion for the Slams knowing they make money hand over fist on the backs of players and volunteers. But I can't help but wonder when the tipping point will come, where the players will begin to come off as whiny millionaires. Right now, their requests are justified. What they seek is a market correction, one that makes tennis a more viable sport not for the Federers and Nadals, but for the Lukas Rosols and Michael Russells of the world, lower-ranked players for whom making the main draw of a Slam can mean big bucks even if they don't win a match.
But the fight over prize money isn't over, and the ATP has gone out of its way to make that clear this week. "[It is] great news for every player that plays this sport, [but] it's not over yet," Djokovic told reporters in Beijing this week. "Obviously, there are other Grand Slams that need to react. We are still in negotiations and we are still doing it behind closed doors."
3. So who gets the cash?: The larger pot creates the big question of how it will be distributed. Craig Tiley, tournament director for the Australian Open, said no decisions had been made yet because he wanted input from the players first. That meeting will take place next week in Shanghai. Of course, the interests driving this move for increased prize money have not been those of the top players but of the lower-ranked men. They want to see prize money increased in the first few rounds to help the players who have done well enough to make the main draw but may not make it much further to see the big money.
If it sounds a little bit like tennis' version of a welfare state, it is. While Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray are the names that sell tickets, they've done well to put their self-interest aside to support the lower-ranked guys for the good of the tour. But as the players prepare to talk to Tiley about how prize money should be distributed, ESPN's Darren Cahill, a former player and coach to Andre Agassi, took to Twitter this week to voice his opinion that players should be paid to win, not just show up.
If I were an Australian Open organizer, I would print out these tweets and take them with me to Shanghai. While many have pointed out that just making the main draw is a huge accomplishment -- and they're absolutely right -- there's something that just doesn't sit well about the idea that the Slams would cut big checks simply for attendance. If the players are serious about spreading the wealth, give the bumps to second- and third-round winners in qualifying rounds and reward the players who get to the second and third rounds in the main draw. Put simply, incentivize winning. That's what's healthy for the tour.
4. Equal prize money remains intact: While the men have been adamant all year about their desire for the Slams to increase prize money, some players’ consistent attacks on the concept of equal prize money have seized headlines. Janko Tipsarevic, Gilles Simon and Sergiy Stakhovsky have been the most vocal critics, arguing that the women should have to play best-of-five to justify their equal paycheck. Simon went further, arguing at Wimbledon that the men’s game was simply more entertaining from a revenue basis, with ticket prices to the men’s finals at Slams outpacing women’s.
But Steve Wood, head of Tennis Australia, reiterated that the Australian Open would continue to offer equal prize money to the women. The Australian Open’s stance simply underlines why this whole discussion over equal prize money is a complete waste of time and does nothing more than provide certain players a platform to bash the women’s game. The debate is a red herring when it comes to the call for increased prize money. Regardless of the arguments, whether market- or commodity-based, the fact is equal prize money at the Slams is here to stay. The fight ended years ago when the women, led by the likes of Venus Williams, lobbied for it and the Slams capitulated for reasons that were unrelated to which tour drove more revenue or brought in more fans. It was the right thing to do, the Slams were in a financial position to do it, and now that equal prize money is in place it’s not going to be taken away no matter how much the men cry foul. 5. Where are the women in this?: Compared to the ATP, the women of the WTA have been silent through most of the year regarding prize money. One reason is because they've been left out of the discussion by the ATP. When the men were talking about boycotts, the women had to read about it in the paper. When the dust settled, the women don't have much to complain about. They're getting the same upgrade as the guys and they didn't have to grab every microphone to make their concerns known. But shutting the women out of the conversation simply highlights the divide between the two tours, one that the Slams and tournaments can continue to take advantage of. That division isn't healthy in the long run. Then again, tennis has never been a sport that's great at unifying the two tours and mobilizing them towards a common good. It's a shame.