When a tennis ace who was the first to earn over US$100m starts talking about more money for tennis players, you kind of turn off.

Novak Djokovic, and those backing him in an apparent power play in the Association of Tennis Professionals management ranks, has made it clear they are not talking about trousering more money themselves. That'd be a bit like Amazon's Jeff Bezos (net worth, before divorce, US$125 billion) agitating for a salary rise.

No, they are intent on raising the stake money for tennis' strugglers – essentially anyone ranked outside the top 200 in the world and maybe quite a few in the 100-200 bracket.


Djokovic, president of the ATP players' council, has trumpeted this stuff at the Australian Open before. This time, the difference is that the players could be making a move on the ATP executive.

There are six members of the ATP board who will soon vote on renewing the contract of ATP chief executive Chris Kermode – three player representatives (Djokovic, Justin Gimelstob and David Egdes) and three tournament representatives. Kermode needs four votes and Djokovic, according to some unconfirmed reports, will vote against him, leading to thoughts of a player-elected CEO.

That's when players can make a pitch for more funds disseminated from tournaments to lower-ranked individuals struggling to make money and to stay on the tour.

[Read more: 'Scared kids': Novak Djokovic-led war brewing at Australian Open]

They have a case. It's well known that many would-be pros can't make a go of it, struggling to cover their costs – more of that later. The ATP has successfully increased prize money on offer (men's money has doubled in the five years to 2018) but players say the tournaments are pocketing higher revenues themselves, rather than increasing the amounts paid to also-rans.

Men's ATP World Tour finalists in 2015. Photo / Getty
Men's ATP World Tour finalists in 2015. Photo / Getty

But hang on just a racquet-throwing moment. There are inequities in tennis arguably more urgent than shoring up lesser-ranked males. And who said anything about the game owing you a living?

This is professional sport. It's supposed to be hard. It isn't "riches for everyone". No one guarantees we ordinary Joes a living; if we don't produce in our line of work, then we don't share in the proceeds either.

Professional sport isn't a right, it's a privilege. To make it, you have to attain a certain level – and that is part of the fascination of the sport…any sport. For every pro rugby player getting to first-class and international standard, there are multitudes who don't. Same with F1, football, cycling, boxing, basketball, athletics and even golf – one of the richest sports, wistfully viewed by tennis pros, supposedly as a valid comparison with their "meagre" earnings.


It's a crock – golf in Europe and the US (and backed by a huge and enthusiastic Asian audience) is watched by large global audiences every week, compared to tennis whose TV audience grows to those heights only four times a year at the Grand Slams.

If we're talking inequity, women achieved pay parity in slam tournaments – but the stark truth is that they earn way less than men in all others.

Last year, The Guardian published data showing that 71 per cent of the world's top 100 men earned more prize money than the top 100 women.

Don't give me that men-play-five-sets, women play three BS. Outside the slams, the males play best of three too.

Serena Williams. Photo / AP
Serena Williams. Photo / AP

Djokovic has previously said men deserve to be paid more because they attract bigger audiences. That's mostly true – though there have been plenty of examples of women's finals in slam tournaments attracting more viewers than the men's, like when Serena Williams is in the US Open final.

[Read more: Stick to sports - Serena Williams, and the politicisation of sport]

The pay difference doesn't include endorsements and some women, like Williams and clothes horses like Maria Sharapova and Eugenie Bouchard, do well in that field.

But the point remains: most women earn less than men in tennis. In these days of gender awareness, maybe balancing those books is the tournaments' first priority in sharing wealth, not just kissing the rings of the blokes. Andy Murray and Roger Federer have pretty much been lone voices calling for more gender equity.

Having said all that, members of both sexes who struggle to break into the top bracket have it tough.

Last year, The Australian newspaper maintained the average income of a male pro was US$32,600, after dividing global prize money by the total number of male players. Problem was, the average cost of travelling on tour, eating and sleeping was US$38,800 – and that before hiring a coach (minimum US$1000 a week).

Unlike team sports, tennis players have to pay their own flights, airport transfers, food, laundry, and accommodation. That's before paying for the expenses of a coach and/or physio. Most knowledgeable observers say to make decent money you need to be inside the top 200 – and probably within the top 100.

An International Tennis Federation (ITF) study in 2013 found the break-even point (where average costs met earnings) was 336 for men and 253 for women. Add in coaching costs and the break-even point shrunk to about 150.

But those who have been going to Auckland's ASB Classic for years remember a young Federer and a young Rafael Nadal playing here well outside the top 150, unknown youngsters looking to build their careers.

They did that – and no one promised them a living.