The Enlightened Professionals

Tuesday, April 24, 2012 /by

Picby Pete Bodo

It appears that when the Big Four speak, tournaments—even mack-daddy Grand Slam events—tend to listen. And that's especially true when Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Andy Murray are not lobbying purely out of their self-interest as the top players.

As a result, Wimbledon has joined the French Open in significantly raising prize money among lower ranked pros (see my Racquet Scientist column on the subject here). The All-England Club is raising prize-money by 10 percent, to a total outlay of $26 million, most of which will be distributed to the journeymen and women of the tour. 

You can't exactly call this wealth re-distribution as a diehard socialist might envision it: The two singles champs at the All-England Club will earn a record $1.85 million this year. But most of the $2.4 million increase will be distributed to players in qualifying, and early-round losers. 

I'm assuming that representatives of the French Open as well as Wimbledon (via the Grand Slam Committee, which represents the four allied majors) were on hand during the Indian Wells tournament when the Big Four made their pitch, requesting that that the increase this year go to the journeymen so that they might cover the ever-increasing expenses that add an extra layer of difficulty and stress for players outside the elite Top 50 or so. 

"It doesn't happen in many sports," All England Club Chairman Philip Brook told the Associated Press, referring to the role the Big Four played in determining how the prize-money increase would be distributed. "It shows that with the top four players you have people of quality." He added, "We appreciate the need to help players meet the rising costs associated with professional tennis."

First of all, we can all share Brook's sentiments on the Big Four. At the dawn of the Open era, the sense of brotherhood and common-cause among the transitional (from amateur to pro) players like Rod Laver, Cliff Drysdale, Arthur Ashe, et al, was extremely high. That changed, dramatically and swiftly, during the heydays of Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, and John McEnroe—an era that generated the cult of personalty, and in which individualism ran rampant. Over time, the ethos gradually shifted and ultimately yielded what I would describe as today's "enlightened professionalism."

Beyond that, I like the tack Wimbledon has taken better than the one that, judging from press releases and news reports, the French have chosen. The emphasis by the latter seems to be on first-round losers, who will get a substantial 20 percent hike, where Wimbledon's increase will give all those losing before the fourth round of  singles an increase of at least 13 percent. This means smaller proportionate raises, but more of them, and to a greater variety of players.

I took a lot of grief over my criticism of the French scheme a few days ago, some of which was baffling. Reading the comments, you might have thought that I suggested that the entire increase be doled out to the singles champions. What I suggested was that the money might be better spent if significant increases were given to the losers in the second round, rather than the first.

I invite anyone who can distinguish between first- and second-round losers as a general class to do so. They are the same players, and whether they last one round or two, or even three, is almost a matter of circumstances. At any rate, very few players are first-round losers all the time. Therefore, even if a first-round loser gets the same amount as before (roughly, in Paris), he or she might make up the shortfall—and then some—if he gets to the second-round at Wimbledon.

Acting under the assumption that a certain pot will be set aside to compensate a certain group, splitting that increase 32 ways (as it would if second-round losers got the biggest hike) means, potentially, twice as big a payoff for those guys than the 64 who would get a bigger check as first-round losers. Or, as an alternative, some of that money saved by not having to pay more to all first-round losers could go to—qualifiers!  

If you see that as shamefully calloused or "Darwinian," so be it. You're entitled to your opinion. I still think the first-round action will be more intense, and at no real economic loss to the class of player under discussion, if the distribution of the increase would be more like what is envisioned at Wimbledon.

Many comment posters flared their hackles when I wrote that a first-round loser at all four Grand Slams in 2011 was clearing $60,000 (after expenses) for doing just eight or ten hours of work. I should have resisted that simplistic construction, being all too aware that X-number of readers will always take things literally. But even so—the arguments that simplification smoked out—that pro tennis players have "worked all their lives" or "sacrificed a great deal" or "are among the very best in the world at what they do"—is truly tiresome, and a manifestation of jock worship at its worst.

So let's take them in order. Don't you think that the novelist (never mind poet) who has yet to find commercial success has worked all his or her life at his craft? The caring elementary school teacher pulling down $65,000 a year may not have started quite as young as Bernard Tomic, but I'll bet that she ends up putting in a lot more time—and taking away far less treasure—than Tomic will in his pro career.

The "sacrifice" argument goes nowhere. I've met very few authentic martyrs and oddly enough, none of them are tennis players. I put the vast majority of tennis players in the category of people who are doing what they love. A journeyman tennis player is like a struggling actor, a fishing guide, or painter/bartender. I'd like to see all of them make more money, and many of them are destined to do just that. But the idea that they "deserve" it is absurd.

As far as being good at what they do, fair enough. The typical first-round loser at Wimbledon is one of the roughly 100-200 best tennis players in the world. But in the big picture, just how important or critical is that? The 100th best tennis player in the world faces economic hardships and challenges that many of the rest of us also know. I'm not sure why he should be exempt from them, when the 100th best lacrosse player, archer, or cross-country skier is not. The irony is that the market may have disproportionately rewarded (rather than punished) the tennis player if you go strictly by the value of being good at what you do.

Anyway . . . This sudden upsurge of interest in the working conditions of tennis' lesser players is still a welcome development. We know that the tournaments, especially the Grand Slams, are making enough money to justify raises even at times like these, when other job providers are not in a comparably flush state. As usual, you have to hold feet to the fire to get increases, and in this case the Big Four proved to have strong and steady arms.

One interesting element on this front is that prize-money once increased at an even rate for all rounds until 2006, at which time prize-money increases for the top performers began to grow disproportionately. So you can interpret this as a course correction, rather than some sort of conversion. Taking that metric to the Grand Slam Committee certainly had to be convincing as a negotiating tactic, but even that "fairness" argument could not have been more persuasive than hearing the Big Four ask the tournament to do what they collectively thought is the right thing.

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