Elite group whip up Slam storm

Thu, Sep 13, 2012, 01:00

TENNIS:The world’s top players are taking a stand against the majors over prize money, with tournament boycotts a possibility, writes CHRISTOPHER CLAREY

THERE WERE rain delays and lost sessions at the US Open, pushed again to a Monday men’s final. There was a tornado warning and a chair blown onto the court in the midst of the men’s semi-final between Tomas Berdych and Andy Murray, the eventual champion.

But this Open might end up looking like the calm before the storm. The top men, led by Roger Federer, remain intent on applying pressure on the Grand Slam tournaments over prize money next year, beginning with the Australian Open in January. “I think as a group, they’ve been led by Roger, who is very intelligent and measured in this,” said Craig Tiley, the Australian Open tournament director. “Any time you can have a player council represented by arguably one of the great players of all time, you’re going to have some strength.”

Although few of the major players or officials are prepared to speak publicly about the particulars for fear of compromising the negotiations, it is clear that tension is rising fast, player expectations are high and Grand Slam administrators are increasingly anxious.

The ATP World Tour players are seeking much more than another routine pay raise. They want to capitalize on the narrow window provided by their golden age and current solidarity to correct what they perceive as a long-running inequity. Late last year the ATP Player Council, with Federer as its president, began its push for more prize money at Grand Slam tournaments, particularly for early-round losers, in an attempt to address an earning gap in a top-heavy sport.

The French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open responded with larger-than-usual increases, weighted toward early-round losers. The US Open, for example, included a raise of at least 18 per cent for the first three rounds of the singles draw.

But the players made it clear that their main goal was major change in 2013. This is a high-stakes game of numbers and identity. The players want to emphasize the Grand Slam tournaments’ similarities with ATP events, which are believed to pay between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of revenue in prize money. The Slams continue to emphasize the differences, which include grass-roots responsibilities, non-profit status and even the commitment to pay for and promote smaller professional events.

“I really don’t think it is apples to apples,” Tiley said. But some tour events, including the Masters Series tournaments in Rome and Canada, are also run by national federations, and some players question why their efforts should help contribute to the financing of player development programmes in the four Grand Slam nations instead of going to more global efforts.

The players are believed to be asking for between 12 per cent and 13 per cent of total revenue. With the Grand Slams committed to equal prize money, that means – with the women along for the ride – the men are effectively demanding about 25 per cent of total revenue for prize money.

“The ATP is taking the lead in talking to the Slams as well as the directors of the Slams and trying to figure that out,” Serena Williams said. “It is what it is. I definitely do agree that the players should be reimbursed more than what we are.”

A 25 per cent share would be more in line with men’s tour events, but it would represent wrenching change for the Grand Slam tournaments. Based on rough estimates, prize money currently ranges from about 11 per cent of revenue at the US Open to about 17 per cent at the Australian Open.

In the case of the US Open, a 25 per cent share would mean increasing prize money from about $25 million to more than $60 million a year. The US Tennis Association’s revenue for 2010, the most recent total available publicly, was $243 million, with an estimated 80 to 85 per cent of that coming from the Open.

The players are offering little in return, and if they fail to reach their prize-money goal next year, they are considering a range of potential actions, according to tennis officials familiar with the possibilities. Those include staging alternative events concurrent with the Grand Slam tournaments, stripping ranking points from the Grand Slam tournaments and skipping the Grand Slams altogether.

A formal boycott appears not to be an option because of antitrust laws, but the players are not part of a union and as independent contractors could choose to withhold their services (It is unclear what the women’s players would do in this instance). “I hope it doesn’t come down to that; I think that’s bad for everybody, really,” Murray said last week.

The last boycott of a Grand Slam was in 1973 when, in an unsettled political period in the game, more than 70 leading players withdrew from Wimbledon in solidarity with Nikki Pilic, who had been barred for failing to play Davis Cup for Yugoslavia.

Gordon Smith, chief executive of the USTA, declined to comment on the negotiations, but a significant pay raise for players could lead to cuts in staff and programmes and jeopardise the viability of the USTA’s recently announced plans for a $500 million upgrade of the National Tennis Center. The French Open also has plans to expand Roland Garros stadium.

The Australian Open has begun a major expansion of its own, which will use public financing. But Tiley said the event could not sustain a one-year prize money hike of the magnitude the players are requesting. He said the only way to institute such change would be over a period of years.

“We do agree that we should be increasing prize money,” Tiley said. “We’ve never shied away from that, and it’s just a question of what we can afford and just how satisfactory that is to the player group.”

The deadline is approaching rapidly. The Australian Open is scheduled to announce its 2013 prize money totals in the first week of October, although Tiley said the tournament reserved the right to adjust the package later. The players have cracked in the past. In the early 2000s, under former chief executive Mark Miles, the ATP deployed many of the same arguments in an attempt to extract a greater percentage of revenue. But the top players lacked the necessary cohesiveness to follow through.

“It’s tough to get 10 top players in the same room, let alone agree upon one thing,” said Pete Sampras, the former number one who retired in 2003. “It’s not the NBA. It’s not a union. It’s individual guys. There were too many different opinions and, to be quite honest with you, I didn’t have the energy to get involved.”

The true level of unity among the current player pool remains unclear, but there appears to be unity of purpose at the top. Federer, Murray, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal and the ATP Tour’s new chief executive, Brad Drewett, have met repeatedly with representatives of the Grand Slam tournaments this year. Nadal and Djokovic are no longer on the ATP Player Council, but Federer remains its president.

Some Grand Slam officials have resisted the idea of linking prize money to a percentage of revenue. Some argue that it should be linked to profit, and they note that approximately one-third of the overall prize money on the men’s tour comes from their tournaments.

“If you have a look at 1998 and the Consumer Price Index increase on prize money per tournament, the Slams have gone up 1,095 percent, the ATP Tour has gone up 216 percent, and the challengers have gone down 15 percent,” Tiley said. “So there’s a big gap. The Slams have stepped up in their prize money and we believe they can step up more, and of course we will step up more, but the question is just by how much.”

The answer could make all the difference between a peaceful start to next season and a stormy one.

New York Times Service

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