Since the Open Era began in professional tennis, prize money has grown steadily, and sometimes exponentially. From the first U.S. Open in 1968, prize money in that tournament has grown by 570 times. Back then, the total amount of money offered for the entire tournament was $100,000. The USTA today announced that total prize money awarded in this year’s Open will be a whooping $57 Million, with $3.85 million going to both the Men’s and Women’s Champion. When John McEnroe won his first of three consecutive Opens in 1979, his champions check was a paltry $29,000. This year, if you win one (ONE!!) match in the singles draw, you will receive $100,000.
It sure sounds like the top tennis players are swimming in money, and for those at the very top, they are. Each of the Big Three, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have each pocketed substantially more than $100 Million in prize money during their careers. But the numbers for those who reside below the Top 25 are substantially lower, and those numbers are gross numbers. They don’t take into account the extraordinary expenses each pro experiences, starting with their initial purses, which are more often than not taxed at a 50% rate from the hosting country.
Recently, John Isner, currently the 10th ranked men’s professional, wrote an article in which he itemized his expenses, and they were eye-popping. He pointed out that he has a “team” of professionals that he pays, including a coach, a physio, a cook, and a masseuse. He also pointed out that his winnings are nowhere near the level of players on professional sports teams in the U.S., where all travel, lodging, food, and miscellaneous expenses are paid for by the team or the league. All of those expenses add up.
Not only that, the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out that the 32nd ranked men’s tennis player made around $750,000 gross, while the 32nd highest paid Major League Baseball player earned over $16 Million. If it costs roughly $300,000 a year for a tennis player to pay for him/herself and a coach to travel to a year’s worth of tournaments, as MarketWatch accounted for, then it is instructive to learn that, although the prize money awarded in professional tennis appears to be extraordinary, that sight is mainly illusory. Additionally, whereas athletes in professional leagues almost always are covered by pension plans for when they retire, all ATP and WTA professional tennis players must save for their own retirement, which further reduces their net pay.
I guess the lesson to be learned here is, if you’re in it for the money alone, become a great baseball player. You have longevity, high pay, cushy travel paid for by your team, and a fair retirement/pension benefit to fall back on after your playing days are over. If you want trophies, and international travel, tennis should be your game.