NEW YORK — There have been rain delays and lost sessions at this U.S. Open, pushed again into a Monday. There has been a tornado warning and a chair blown onto the court in the midst of the men’s semifinal between Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych.
But this Open still could end up looking like the calm before the storm.
The top men, led by Roger Federer, remain intent — genuinely intent — on applying major financial pressure on the Grand Slam tournaments next year, beginning with the Australian Open in January.
“I think you’re right,” said Craig Tiley, the Australian Open tournament director. “I think as a group, they’ve been led by Roger, who is very intelligent and measured in this. Anytime you can have a player council represented by arguably one of the great players of all time, you’re going to have some strength.”
Though few of the other major players — athletes or officials — are prepared to speak publicly about the particulars for fear of compromising the negotiations, it is clear that tension is rising fast, player expectations are high and Grand Slam administrators are increasingly anxious.
French Open officials, concerned that their message was not reaching the rank-and-file, recently sent an e-mail to French players seeking to dispel potential misconceptions: an approach that raised hackles among some tour officials.
The players are seeking much more than another routine pay raise. They want to capitalize on the narrow window provided by their golden age and current solidarity to correct what they perceive as a long-running historical inequity and bring the four Grand Slam events in closer line with their own tour events in terms of the percentage of prize money.
This is a high-stakes game of numbers and also of identity, with the players trying to emphasize the Grand Slam tournaments’ similarities with their own events while the Slams continue to emphasize their differences, which include grass-roots responsibilities, nonprofit status and even the commitment to funding and promoting smaller professional events.
“I really don’t think it is apples to apples,” Tiley said.
The players are prepared to argue, pointing out that some of their own events, including the Masters Series tournaments in Rome and Canada, are also run by national federations. Some players question why their efforts should help contribute to the funding of big player development programs in the four Grand Slam nations instead of on a more global level.
The players also maintain that more pay is a matter of principle. They are believed to be asking for between 12 percent and 13 percent of total revenue. With the Grand Slams now committed to equal prize money, that means — with the women along for the ride — the men are effectively demanding about 25 percent of total revenue.
That would be more in line with men’s tour events, which are believed to pay generally between 20 percent and 30 percent of revenue in prize money.
But it would represent wrenching change for the Grand Slam tournaments. In the case of the U.S. Open, it would mean approximately a 250 percent hike in prize money in a single year from about $25 million to over $60 million.
In exchange, the players are offering, for now, little change of their own in return, and if they fail to reach their prize-money goal next year, they are considering a range of potential actions, according to tennis officials familiar with the possibilities.
Those include staging alternative events concurrent with the Grand Slam tournaments, stripping ranking points from the Grand Slam tournaments and skipping the Grand Slam tournaments altogether.
A formal boycott appears not to be an option because of antitrust laws, but the players are not part of a union and as independent contractors could choose to withhold their services. (It is unclear what the women’s players would do in this instance.)
This is not, of course, what either camp desires.
“I hope it doesn’t come down to that; I think that’s bad for everybody, really,” Murray said last week.
The last boycott of a Grand Slam was in 1973, when in an unsettled political period in the game, more than 70 leading players withdrew from Wimbledon in solidarity with Nikki Pilic, who had been barred for failing to play Davis Cup for Yugoslavia.
Nearly 40 years later, the emphasis remains on diplomacy, but the camps appear to be far apart for the moment.
Gordon Smith, chief executive of the U.S. Tennis Association, declined to comment on the negotiations, but a 250 percent pay raise for the players clearly would be a big hit for an organization whose declared revenues in 2010 (the most recent totals available publicly) were $243 million, with an estimated 80 percent to 85 percent of that coming from the U.S. Open.
A huge player pay raise could force staff and program cuts and also jeopardize the viability of the U.S.T.A’s recently announced plans for a $500 million upgrade of the U.S. Open site, just as it could impact the French Open’s plans — approved last year — to expand Roland Garros stadium in Paris.
The Australian Open, which has begun a major expansion of its own, is in a different position because its work in Melbourne will be financed by funded publicly. But, Tiley said, the Australian Open could simply not sustain a one-year prize money hike of the magnitude the players are requesting.
“I think it’s important for everyone to understand what the business model is,” Tiley said in a telephone interview. “For us to add that much money into compensation in one year is just not feasible from a business point of view. We would have to completely change the way we do business. It’s not something our shareholders would support or our board would be able to do.”
Tiley, who favors a wider debate about the sport’s future, said the only way to institute such change would be over a period of years. “We do agree that we should be increasing prize money,” he said. “We’ve never shied away from that, and it’s just a question of what we can afford and just how satisfactory that is to the player group.”
The deadline is approaching rapidly, however. The Australian Open is scheduled to announce its 2013 prize money totals in the first week of October, although Tiley said the tournament reserved the right to adjust the package at a later date.
Pete Sampras, the former world No. 1 from the United States who officially retired in 2003, said he supported the players’ push. “The Slams are making tons of money because of the players, and I think in fairness, the players should be compensated,” he said in a telephone interview. “I think the Slams have gotten away with it for way too long.”
The players have cracked in the past. In the early 2000s, under the former chief executive Mark Miles, the ATP deployed many of the same arguments in an attempt to extract a greater percentage of revenue. But the top players ultimately lacked the necessary cohesiveness to follow through.
“It’s tough to get 10 top players in the same room, let alone agree upon one thing,” Sampras said. “It’s not the N.B.A. It’s not a union. It’s individual guys. There were too many different opinions and to be quite honest with you, I didn’t have the energy to get involved.
“The fact that Roger wants to get involved is a great asset. If the top players stick together, they can do whatever they want in the sport.”
The true level of unity among the current player pool remains unclear, but there appears to be much more unity of purpose at the top. The leading four players — Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Murray — and the ATP Tour’s new chief executive, Brad Drewett, have met repeatedly with representatives of the Grand Slam tournaments this year. Nadal and Djokovic are no longer on the ATP Player Council, but Federer, ranked No. 1 at age 31, remains its president.
Rough estimates for the total revenue at the Grand Slam events next year are about $150 million for the Australian Open; $200 million for the French Open and Wimbledon; and $250 million for the U.S. Open, which would mean, according to those approximate figures, that the percentage of revenue devoted to prize money ranges from about 11 percent at the U.S. Open to about 17 percent at the Australian Open.
But there is deep resistance among some Grand Slam officials to the idea of linking prize money to percentage of revenue. Some argue that it should be linked to percentage of profit and maintain that approximately one third of the total prize money on the men’s tour comes from Grand Slam events, which occupy just eight weeks on the calendar.
“If you have a look at 1998 and the consumer price index increase on prize money per tournament,” Tiley said, “the Slams have gone up 1,095 percent, the ATP Tour has gone up 216 percent, and the challengers have gone down 15 percent. So there’s a big gap. The Slams have stepped up in their prize money and we believe they can step up more, and of course we will step up more, but the question is just by how much.”
The answer could make all the difference between a peaceful start to next season and a very stormy one.