Players say prize money increase a positive step

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Coco Vandeweghe earned $29,100 for losing in the first round of the Australian Open, or about $370 for every minute she was on court Monday.

That is nowhere near the record $2.56 million that the eventual men's and women's winners will take home, but she says a roughly one-third increase in prize money for players losing in the first few rounds is a step in the right direction.

The Australian Open didn't just boost the overall purse this year, it also partly compensated players for their travel to the tournament, a financial boon for those without multi-million-dollar sponsorship deals who struggle to make ends meet on tour.

"It's not easy paying your expenses week in, week out, traveling all over the world. If you are top 100 in most other sports, you're making millions. Tennis, that's not quite the case," the 99th-ranked Vandeweghe said after her loss to 27th-seeded Romanian Sorana Cirstea.

Even though she briefly rose to No. 69 in the world and pocketed more than $140,000 in prize money last year, Vandeweghe didn't hesitate when asked whether she broke even financially. "No chance," she said.

Belgian Olivier Rochus, who also lost in the first round, said the $1,000 check for travel expenses was a big surprise. "I think it's really nice. They really understand it costs a lot of money for us to come here," he said.

The Australian Open has taken the lead among Grand Slams in increasing prize money for the last four years, including a $4.2 million hike for this year's edition, making it the richest Grand Slam tournament. The biggest pay raises were for players who lose in the first three rounds.

In an interview with The Associated Press, tournament director Craig Tiley said the initial motivation was to give the Australian Open a point of difference and keep the players interested in coming.

"I wasn't that long ago — I'd say six or seven years ago — the Australian Open was kind of regarded as the fourth cousin amongst the big four," he told AP. "It wasn't that long we weren't attracting the top players — for many years (John) McEnroe missed it, (Jimmy) Connors missed it."

But more recently, organizers were also faced with the threat of a player strike on the eve of the Australian Open, in part due to player discontent over how prize money was distributed at the major events.

"The boycott discussion, we weren't fearful of it, but we didn't take it lightly," Tiley said. "We also didn't disagree with what the players were saying."

"We've always had the view that tennis is a sport where if you're top 200 in the world, you should be the best in your profession, should have the opportunity to earn a living, support the cost of a coach, your own travel and be able to put some money away for your next career or some retirement."

As it stands, he said, only the top 75 to 80 players make enough each year to do this.

"That's what we're trying to address — to bring the pack closer," he said. "If you don't do that, then the best athletes are going to be attracted to the other sports."

Marcos Baghdatis has had his up-and-down years since making his debut at a major in 2004, reaching a career-high ranking of No. 8, but only three times finishing in the top 20. In 2012, he had a momentous year off the court — he married former women's pro Karolina Sprem in July and their daughter, Zahara, was born in October.

Now ranked 35th and with a growing family to feed, Baghdatis is among those happy to see the prize money go up in the early rounds at the majors. Since losing the 2006 Australian Open final to Roger Federer and making the semifinals at Wimbledon later that year, he hasn't gone further than the quarterfinals at 22 majors. He advanced to the second round in a late five-set win Monday.

"I think it's great for the sport. We'll see more competition coming if the prize money comes up," he said ahead of the tournament. "Because I think a young kid who has no money, if he gets to four Grand Slams in a year he can invest for his future, and I think that's very important."

The top men's players — in particular, Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray — have helped push for better compensation for the lower-ranked players on the ATP tour.

Murray, the reigning U.S. Open champion, has seen both sides of the player compensation debate. As a Grand Slam winner and a permanent fixture in the top four since 2008, he has amassed almost $25 million in prize money. He travels with a team of support people including a conditioning expert and often with coach Ivan Lendl, an eight-time major winner. That all costs money.

His older brother, Jamie Murray, ranked 78th in doubles, made just under $100,000 last year.

While the Australian Open has increased its prize money and incentives for players, Murray thinks there are still major issues to overcome at the lower levels of professional tennis.

"I think, to be honest, the issues with tennis go a lot deeper than the ATP Tour," he said. "The Challenger Tour prize money hasn't changed in years. Futures tournaments, I don't think their prize money has changed the last 20 to 30 years.

"That's what is stopping guys playing tennis early rather than the guys that are on the main tour stopping early. So the problem is not so much with the main tour. It's the smaller events. "

Russia's Alex Bogomolov Jr., who helped highlight the threat of a strike last year with a late-night tweet, said the increase in compensation in Melbourne is a positive step, but players won't have the power to force changes like this at other tournaments without a union similar to the players' unions in the NBA and NFL.

"For me, the only reason I'm still a little sad is by the time I retire, the revenue split will be 50-50. That's the way it's heading," he said after his first-round loss on Monday.

"It's going to take years and years for that to happen. What else can we do? We do our job, we play as hard as we can and we are happy that people come to watch us play," he said.

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AP Sports Writer John Pye contributed to this report.

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