- Associated Press - Monday, January 14, 2013

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.

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