Putting More Green in the Grass

Tuesday, April 23, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

It’s a good time to be a tennis player. Every other week, it seems, one of the Grand Slams announces a whopping double-digit boost in prize money. Today it was Wimbledon’s turn to pony up: For the 2013 event, the All England Club is increasing its payout to the players by 40 percent. The purse will be $34.4 million, a $10 million increase from last year, which the club says is the largest jump in tennis history.

So, the rich are getting richer, right? Yes, as a master of fact, they are: The men’s and women’s singles champions will each receive $2.4 million this year, a 39 percent increase over 2012. That may seem a tad excessive at a time of widespread economic pain, but at least income inequality won’t grow at Wimbledon. Losers in the first three rounds of singles will see their winnings go up by 62 percent. Doubles players (22 percent increase), those who lose in qualifying (41 percent increase), and even the seniors (7 percent) will all come away with thicker wallets.

On an industry level, this is good news, and a sign of tennis's maturation. Historically, it has been hard to get the athletes in this individual, hierarchical sport to agree on much of anything—the desires of the best are always different from the desires of the rest. Yet in this case the best have helped the rest. The drive for increased prize money at all levels, which began last season and has now led to significant boosts at each of the majors, has been spearheaded by the top players.

Even those of us who don’t happen to be professional tennis players can sympathize with the rank and file who are trying to make a living on tour. No fan would want to see the No. 1 player cruise the world in a private jet, while No. 100 is keeping her sneakers held together with duct tape. Yet there’s one number in today’s Wimbledon windfall that seems to have rankled a few people: $35,890. That’s how much a first-round loser will make this year. It's more than Bjorn Borg made for winning the tournament in 1980.

Depending on your point of view, that will either seem extravagant, or it will seem like a relative pittance in the grand scheme of modern sports. Baseball fans typically don't begrudge back-up catchers, who might play 20 games a season, their multi-million dollar salaries. But then no one comes out to the ballpark to watch the back-up catcher, the way tennis fans come to a tournament, sit on a side-court, and expect to see a high-quality first-round match. Will a pay increase for the loser of that match make it easier for a player to give less than his or her best? The common sense answer is yes. At the extreme, it can give rise to situations like Frank Dancevic’s at last year’s French Open. The Canadian, who had injured his back the previous month, admitted that he walked on court mainly to pick up his (recently increased) loser’s check, and retired after four games. (Then again, he did the same thing at Queen's a couple of weeks later, for much less money.)

British journalist Simon Cambers wrote about the disincentives of higher pay for first-round losers in the Tennis Space on Tuesday. He used the Netherlands’ Robin Haase as his example.

“The Dutchman,” Cambers wrote, “is hugely talented and has had his moments over the past few years, even if he has never quite fulfilled his talent. That said, just last summer he was ranked a career-high No. 33, and even until last week he was inside the Top 50....But it might surprise you to know that during 2012—the best year of his career in terms of ranking—he lost in the first round of 17 ATP tour events. 

That’s right, I said 17. That’s 17 out of 27 regular tour events, including Grand Slams. He finished with a record of 19 wins, 28 losses....But here’s the thing. He won $441,875. That’s not bad for someone who in 17 events did not win a match.”

From that point of view, it sounds like the tours are creating a permanent class of satisfied underachievers. It’s true, if you’re an established player who can get into main draws directly, you can afford to coast sometimes, as long as you go deep enough at a couple of events to keep your ranking afloat. It isn’t just Haase; many players we would call successful have losing records at the main-draw level. 

At the same time, it’s not as if first-round losers at majors got there without doing any work. Haase may be, as Cambers writes, hugely talented, but there are thousands of talented men and women who never made it as far as he did. That was Dancevic’s defense in Paris last year. He said that he felt like he had earned his loser’s check because he had achieved a ranking that allowed him to enter the Roland Garros main draw—plus, like the majority of pros, whose earning years are short, he needed the cash. Haase’s take of $441,875 last year is substantial, but a good part of it was used to pay for flights and hotel rooms 40 weeks of the year.

The money, in theory, should work both ways. It may be a disincentive for established players to try harder, but what about those who are striving to reach the main draws in the first place? There’s more incentive now to make the cut-off for the Grand Slams. Whatever the dollar numbers are, there will always be players who are content to pick up a check each week, and there will always be players who are driven to do more, to become champions regardless of the pay—it’s the latter that make the sport what it is. Slackers with bad attitudes will never go away, but even some of the most blatantly money-driven players, such as Nikolay Davydenko, can bring good value to spectators.

The question that I would ask, after a year’s worth of eye-popping prize-money increases, is: What’s in it for the fans? Will better pay at the second and third tier make for more entertaining tennis? It’s hard to imagine—the sport already attracts hungry young talents from all over the world. One thing we do know is that the Slams, which are responsible for growing the game in their respective nations, will pay for the players’ raises one way or another, and that will almost surely include raising ticket prices, selling more tickets, or both. 

From a fan’s perspective, the most interesting element of Wimbledon's announcement on Tuesday is the retractable roof that the club plans to build over Court 1 by 2019. It’s six years away, but it's something, anyway—now maybe they can get it to close in less than half an hour. Wimbledon also wants to remake its cramped practice facilities; finding a way to allow spectators to watch the players practice (you can't see much at All England now), would be another upgrade. Of all the changes that the U.S. Open plans to make to Flushing Meadows, the best may be the deck that will allow people to see the pros workout. Indian Wells has helped make watching practice a big part of fans’ experience, and the majors are right to follow suit.

With Wimbledon on board, each of the majors now has an expansion/upgrade plan. The main complaint that I hear from Slam-goers is that these events have become too crowded—that's unquestionably true at Roland Garros, which needs more space, but you can feel it at all of the tournaments. Lines, for courts and bathrooms, stretch halfway across the grounds at Flushing Meadows. It would be nice if, when the Slams open up their added space, they didn't simply fill it all back up by selling more and more tickets and grounds passes, until it feels just as claustrophobic, and it's just as hard to get a good seat. But that will likely be one of the prices we'll pay for new roofs, bigger arenas, and richer players. 

Wimbledon and it fellow Grand Slams are making life better for the pros. I hope they can do the same for the fans who may ultimately foot much of the bill for their pay raises.

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