In a trend that continues to dispel the myth of tennis’s financial ills, those currently battling it out at the French Open in Paris can again look forward to improved paychecks at the climax of a Grand Slam. Like the three other marquee events on the tennis calendar -- the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open -- Roland Garros has continued to bolster its payouts year-on-year.
That fact may surprise many in the U.S. where the sport’s profile has taken a hit since homegrown stars Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were at the top of the rankings and household names through much of the 1990s. Instead, there is plenty of evidence that tennis’s expanding popularity across the globe has the sport in sturdy health.
In the past two years, all four Grand Slams have dramatically increased their prize money. The French Open purse was boosted this year by $4.1 million to a total of $34 million. Wimbledon, which will take place at London’s historic All England Club next month, recently announced that their prize money is increasing by 10.8 percent to $42 million. That follows a staggering leap of 40 percent from the previous year. At the Australian Open earlier this year, the prize fund was increased from $20.3 million to $22 million.
Last year, the U.S. Open, which in 2013 saw its fourth-highest attendance ever, unveiled an unprecedented commitment to raise prize money to $50 million by 2017. Tennis’s Grand Slams are seemingly locked in a frenzied competition to appease its performers, who have campaigned for a higher percentage of revenue to go their way. In 2012, the United States Tennis Federation (USTA) brought in $233 million in revenue from the U.S. Open, an increase from $226 million the previous year.
While the overall standard of tennis has arguably never been higher, there is little doubt that it is the major brand names that continue to drive the sport and attract the crucial casual fan.
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The 2013 U.S. Open finals were both between the world’s top two players and unsurprisingly saw improved television ratings. The women’s final, featuring the only current true American star of either gender, Serena Williams, and Victoria Azarenka of Belarus drew a 4.0 rating on CBS. That was the highest for a women’s final since Serena took on sister Venus in 2002, and the best for any final since the last featuring an American man, when Andy Roddick faced Roger Federer in 2006, according to Sports Media Watch. Last year’s men’s final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, held on a Monday, drew the highest rating since the last one to be staged on a Sunday, in 2007.
Tennis fans are currently reveling in what has widely been described as a “golden age,” with arguably the two greatest players of all time in Federer and Nadal as well as six-time Grand Slam winner Djokovic and another multiple-Slam winner in Andy Murray regularly vying for the biggest titles.
The rewards for those top players have never been higher and rightly so considering that it is they who are drawing fans to the television sets. However, it is the sport’s lower-ranked players who are benefiting most from the recent increases in prize money. At the French Open, while the winners of the men’s and women’s singles will get an increase of 10 percent in their prize money, those knocked out in the second, third and fourth rounds have seen a boost of between 20 percent and 25 percent.
“This significant raise in the prize money at Roland Garros is part of the four-year plan which we established for 2013 - 2016,” said Gilbert Ysern, tournament director and Director General of the FFT, according to the official tournament website. "It is specifically designed to benefit players who are knocked out in the first week.”
The likes of Federer and Nadal have used their influence to benefit the vast majority of professional tennis players who, rather than earning millions both on and off the court, are simply striving to make enough to cover their vast expenses traveling the globe.
The disparity between the top earners in tennis and its most comparable sport, golf, is significantly greater. The 100th leading earner on the U.S. PGA Tour this year has thus far earned $652,782, 13.8 percent of the top earner’s $4.7 million. In contrast, the man 100th on tennis’s ATP tour earning list has received $147,976, just 4.1 percent of the top earner, Nadal, who has pulled in $3.6 million to date. The increased chasm continues lower down. The 200th best earner on the ATP Tour has taken in $40,752, just 1.1 percent of Nadal’s prize money. On the PGA Tour that that figure is 2.9 percent.
Britain’s James Ward, who has spent 10 years on tour and is currently ranked 169th in the world, was grateful for the increased payday when he came through qualifying at the French Open last week. And Ward has been grateful for the support from the likes of his compatriot Murray in fighting for better rewards for players below the elite level.
“It’s good that he came out and spoke like that,” he told BBC Sport. “I think a lot of the top guys could help in that way. Andy’s always put his name forward to do that. He understands. I speak to him about things all the time. We’re pretty close now. He sees his level and the level I’m playing at, Challengers and playing ATP qualies. It’s completely different.
“It’s difficult. I’ve been asked this question for the last five years and it’s the same reply every time. You’re paying your own expenses, your coach’s, you’re paying for your food, the hotel, your travel -- for two people. And if you lose in the first round you’re getting $300, minus tax. It’s embarrassing. You’ve just got to win matches.”
While Ward will collect a check for $32,640 for his first-round loss in the French capital, the men and women who win the most matches these two weeks will take home a cool $2.24 million.