Brian Earley, the tournament referee here at the US Open, has much to answer for. It was two years ago that Earley’s controversial decision to send some of the sport’s biggest names out to play on courts which they thought were dangerous set in train a sequence of events for which the Grand Slam tournaments are literally still paying.
When Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Andy Roddick, unhappy at being told to play on damp and potentially treacherous surfaces, stormed into Earley’s office, other long-standing grievances contributed to the players’ anger. Discontent had already been simmering over issues ranging from prize money at all the Grand Slam events to the US Open’s scheduling of matches on the final weekend, and the players saw their latest treatment as the last straw.
“We don’t feel protected,” Nadal said at the time. “Grand Slams earn a lot of money and we are part of the show. They are just working for that, not for us.”
The following two years have seen a remarkable shift in the balance of power. The Grand Slam tournaments have thrown money not only at the players but also at their facilities. It is almost as if they have been engaging in one-upmanship, matching or surpassing each other in terms of both their prize money and their determination not to fall behind their rivals with the spectacle they provide.
United States Tennis Association officials could barely hide their glee when introducing Serena Williams at the draw here last week and reminding her that this year’s men’s and women’s champions will each receive cheques for $2.6m (about £1.7m), the biggest in the sport’s history.
Total prize money for this year’s tournament, which begins today, will be $34.3m (£22m), with at least 37 per cent more paid out in each round compared with last year. The USTA has already pledged to bring total prize money up to $50m (£32m) by 2017.
Meanwhile player dissatisfaction over scheduling of the concluding weekend will be resolved by 2015, when the men’s semi-finals will move to Friday, giving the winners a day’s rest before the Sunday final. The tournament’s recurring weather problems – the event has spilled into a third week for the last five years in a row – should also be resolved following the announcement that a retractable roof will be built over Arthur Ashe Stadium, while a new Louis Armstrong Stadium will also be constructed with a sliding cover. The cost of the redevelopment programme at Flushing Meadows will be a cool $550m (£354m).
The US Open’s announcement on prize money followed similar moves by the three other Grand Slam tournaments. The increases this year, at a time of global economic difficulties, have been remarkable. The Australian Open, aware that there had been talk of a players’ strike, set the benchmark by announcing a rise in prize money to $Aus30m (£17.4m), which at the time was the biggest prize fund in history. The French Open followed by increasing its pot to €22m (£18.8m).
Wimbledon, never an organisation to be outdone and always aware of its position as the sport’s most famous tournament, upped the ante even further. When the All England Club announced a remarkable 40 per cent increase in prize money earlier this year, Philip Brook, the chairman, insisted that Wimbledon was not engaging in one-upmanship but still talked of other tournaments as “competitors” and stated proudly: “This is the largest single increase ever in tennis history and the total prize money of £22.6m is also the largest ever in tennis.” He added: “We’ve made these increases because we want to make them, not because we had to make them.”
Wimbledon’s biggest increases, of 62 to 64 per cent, went to singles players who lost in the first three rounds, with first-round losers each receiving £23,500. The singles champions received £1.6m, a 39 per cent increase on 2012. When asked whether the increases were justifiable in the current economic climate, Brook said: “We need to remain competitive. The prize money landscape has changed significantly over the last year. We needed at the very least to respond to that.”
Meanwhile all four Grand Slam tournaments are investing heavily in their facilities, the US Open having been the last to show their hand. Tennis Australia is in the process of spending Aus$363m (£210m) on a series of improvements to Melbourne Park, including a cover over Margaret Court Stadium, which will give the tournament sliding roofs over three courts.
Proposed changes at the French Open are in a state of flux. The French federation wants to expand into adjoining botanical gardens – at 21 acres Roland Garros is currently the smallest of the four Grand Slam sites – but a tribunal earlier this year found in favour of environmentalists who have campaigned against the proposals.
The federation has plans to expand the site by 60 per cent and wants to build a new 5,000-seat stadium and training centre as well as a retractable roof over Philippe Chatrier Court, the main arena. The work would cost €340m (about £290m).
Wimbledon has not finalised its redevelopment programme but is in the middle of a consultation process with regard to its “Master Plan”. The outline proposals include a range of structural changes over the next 15 to 20 years, including a retractable roof over No 1 Court and new locations for many outside courts.
Given that the roof over Centre Court was reckoned to have cost more than £100m, the bill for the latest proposals looks likely to be at least double that figure. Brook says that the main objective of the changes was to maintain Wimbledon’s status as “the premier tennis tournament in the world”.
Gordon Smith, executive director and CEO of the USTA, appears to be in no doubt that the other Grand Slam tournaments should be seen as rivals. “Tennis is the most international of all sports,” Smith said. “We have our Grand Slam partners to compete with, and they raise the bar every year on facilities and fan experience.”