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ATP prize money more equitable

Roger Federer advocated more evenly distributed prize money allocations. China Photos/Getty Images

Unfettered capitalism is being reined in around the world these days, and tennis is no exception.

Despite the global economic blues, prize money on the men's tour was stepped up to $82.3 million this year and now stands over a third higher than in 2006.

Almost all of the latest increase was originally allocated to tournament winners and finalists, and those losing early on were in some cases actually scheduled to receive less than last season.

The winner of the upcoming BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, for example, would pocket $700,000, up 26 percent from last year's $555,000. But a player who went out in the fourth round was to receive $32,000, down almost 14 percent from last year's $37,000. Scheduled prize money at other big events followed a similar pattern.

But the news was met with a stormy reception during the players' meeting at the Australian Open in January, forcing officials to hastily reconfigure. Revised numbers were quietly issued by the ATP earlier this month. The pie is now divided more evenly, with the result that prize money for each round will be higher than it was last year. The Indian Wells champion will get $605,000 and fourth-round losers will get $39,800.

The redistribution was done with the backing of the ATP player council, which currently includes the world's top three players -- council president Roger Federer, vice president Rafael Nadal and council member Novak Djokovic.

"They, along with the other council members, thought that this is what's in the best interests of the game," said Justin Gimelstob, a player representative on the ATP board of directors and commentator at the SAP Open in San Jose last week. "I think that speaks volumes to their humanity and ability to sacrifice their own direct fiscal well-being for the betterment of the game.

"And to enable us to say, to feel like every single player in every single round will make more money in 2009 than they did in 2008. In this financial landscape and challenging times that we have, that shows incredible health and stability in our sport."

Asked about the thinking behind the original prize money distribution, Gimelstob said, "This was done by a previous administration, the previous breakdowns. I hadn't seen them or been involved in them. When you don't create something, there's not as much of the familiarity and the understanding of all the entities of it."

The highest levels of the ATP have resembled a revolving door during the past year. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic joined the player council last fall, concerned about some of the decisions being made by former executive chairman Etienne de Villiers, who left his post at the end of 2008. As a precursor, a new set of player representatives, including Gimelstob, had been elected to the ATP board by the player council in July.

"The player council and the player board are all new, so they hadn't been involved in the previous decision. So we all kind of came upon this together and tried to figure out how to best move forward," said Gimelstob.

The changes will help appease those who were angered by the prospect of the rich getting richer while those below tightened their belts. Guillermo Canas was one of the pros who had spoken out against the original prize money amounts at the players' meeting in Australia.

"It's good if they start to change it," he said after hearing about the redistribution. "I think it's not fair for the young people when they're starting. If you are qualifier at a big tournament, it's not fair if you get less money than the years before, or the same money if [other rounds are] much more than the years before."

But, Canas admits, the discussion in Australia was limited to the money at events on the ATP level. Prize money at the minor league challenger and futures events, which has stayed almost static for over a decade, was not a topic.

"I think everybody at that meeting has started to play some ATP [tournaments], the rest of us play all the year ATP," said Canas. "I know one of the main problems for young people to play challengers, it's getting more expensive than the years before, and maybe it's the same [prize] money.

"But really it's difficult to change that, more for the economic situation during last year and this year. First I think they need to change for the big tournaments and then try to think [about] small ones."

Even at the ATP level, not everyone agrees on what is fair. Mardy Fish isn't at all opposed to the big stars getting the lion's share of any extra money. "I'm for it, if they want to make it top heavy," said the American, ranked No. 21 in the world.

"The reason people buy tickets to Grand Slams and stuff is to watch the top guys.I think it's important to realize that if you're ranked 60 to 80 in the world -- the only reason they have a job is because of those guys. It's a great job, and it's something we shouldn't take for granted."

Another argument in favor of tilting gains toward the top players is that they bear almost all the increased burdens that have accompanied the prize money increases, such as having to play all eight mandatory Masters 1000 events.

Others, however, emphasize that the cost of aspiring to reach the top of the game is on the rise. Tennis pros are independent contractors and must pay their own travel expenses as well as the salaries and expenses of those they hire. The payroll usually includes a coach and, increasingly, a physical trainer.

Grand Slam and ATP events do take care of the hotel room, though players must pay for their own stay in many qualifying and minor league tournaments. Extra rooms for coaches, trainers, agents and assorted hangers-on must be paid for by the player.

Things like restaurant tabs, private medical bills and taxes also come out of the players' own pockets.

On the earnings side, Rafael Nadal topped the tables last year with $6.7 million, and all the top 10 took in more than $1 million. The 100th-highest earner came in at approximately $300,000, while No. 200 got just over $100,000. Earnings include both singles and doubles. (The curve on the women's tour is far steeper -- $1 million and up for the top 10, $182,000 for No. 100 and just over $50,000 for No. 200.)

Ernests Gulbis, who finished last year ranked No. 53 in singles and collected about $500,000 in prize money, says even he has to keep his career expenses under control to avoid being in the red. The 20-year-old Latvian usually travels with his father and his coach and also regularly works with a physio.

"I think it's sad because a lot of the top 100 players, for example, me -- I count all my expenses and my income, and basically I have zero," said Gulbis, who thinks things would be only marginally better if he counted his pennies. "If I'm thinking a lot how I travel, which hotel I use, which food I eat, maybe at the end of the year, I'll be plus a couple of thousand."

Gulbis, though, does not have to be frugal. He is able to count on family wealth to finance his career but is aware some of his friends on tour are not as fortunate.

"I've been thinking a lot about it. I've been talking to a lot of players about it, especially Russian guys," he said. "They're top-100 players in the world, and they can't pay even a coach to travel with them. They can barely survive.

"I feel [being a] top-50 player in the world, it's a tough job and I think the money and the things which you gain from this, it's not enough what you give to it," he added. "In other sports, the system is a little bit different -- like in basketball and hockey, they try to help you in early days. But in tennis you struggle, you play in futures, you play challengers, you reach the top 100 -- nobody helped you, and still you're in the minus. It's not enough."

But lending a bigger hand to lower-ranked players seems far from the minds of those who run the sport. Even the president of the less commercially minded ITF, Francesco Ricci Bitti, said in 2006, "Top players deserve to earn more money. They are like stars of show business, entertainers. … Money is never too much at the top of the sport. I do, however, believe there is too much money in the lower part of the circuit, at the start of many players' careers."

Gimelstob has seen the situation from both ends, having joined the ATP board after a 12-year pro career during which he reached No. 63 in the world and earned about $2.5 million in prize money. He feels the pay structure is appropriate given tennis' place in the financial pecking order of sports.

"There's a business aspect to it. I mean, I was ranked 60 to 150 most of my career and I just felt fortunate that I was able to make a decent living playing professional tennis," he said. "It's tough when you compare it to golf, basketball or other sports, but you could also compare it to soccer, swimming, diving or gymnastics. It's between those things."

In tennis, as elsewhere, the free market may no longer run rampant -- but socialism has also clearly yet to take residence.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.