MELBOURNE, Australia -- Glorious sunshine, bumper crowds, and an unmistakably Australian laid-back atmosphere has seen the Aussie Open unofficially dubbed the "Happy Slam". But perhaps the greatest reason behind the smiles on players' faces at Melbourne Park is thanks to the eye-watering prize money on offer.
The tournament's total prize pool has swelled to AU$76,500,000 (US$53 million) in 2023, making it the second-highest paying tennis event on the planet, behind only the US Open. This year, singles champions will take home cheques for AU$2,975,000 (US$2.06 million), while even a first-round loss will net early exits a staggering AU$106,250 (US$74,000).
Over the course of the Australian summer of tennis, which includes the lucrative new United Cup, as well as ATP and WTA tournaments in Adelaide, Hobart and Canberra, a record prize pool of AU$100 million is on offer.
"It is critical to the continued success of Australian tennis that we provide strong and relevant playing opportunities and ensure that the best players in the world are compensated appropriately," Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said on the eve of this year's event.
It's a far cry from where the Australian Open found itself in the 1970s and early 80s.
Back then, the tournament was staged in Kooyong -- an affluent suburb in Melbourne's inner east. While picturesque, the private club's facilities and infrastructure were lacking and the grounds could barely accommodate 5,000 spectators per day. When you consider the lengthy travel for many US and European-based players and the awkward December timing, prize money had to be substantial in order to make the trek Down Under worthwhile. Unfortunately, it was nothing of the sort.
Margaret Court's 1970 Australian Open triumph saw her earn a paltry AU$700 (worth roughly AU$9,700 in 2023). What did those first round losers cash? Nothing. Women had to reach the third round in order to be paid, albeit AU$30 (AU$415 or so today). Men earned that same modest prize with a second round appearance.
It was hardly worth the trek for overseas-based players, and with many of the world's biggest names opting to skip the event, the Australian Open consistently featured significantly weaker fields, which fed the narrative of it being the "odd one out" amongst the majors.
That was until 1988, when Victorian premier John Cain announced a new home for the tournament, moving the event from Kooyong to Flinders Park -- a neglected parkland situated between Richmond and Melbourne's CBD, today known as Melbourne Park. The playing surface was changed from grass to hard courts and a mid-January start date was adopted. The world's first tennis stadium with a retractable roof (now named Rod Laver Arena) was also built and prize money began trending upward. The stigma around the Australian Open quickly began to change for the better and stars returned.
Over the next 15 years, the Australian Open prize pool closed the gap to the other Slams, before eventually surpassing both Wimbledon and the French Open in 2003 with a total purse of AU$18.18 million. It was a landmark moment for a tournament which had finally shaken the 'fourth Slam' stigma.
A clever marketing campaign which positioned the Australian Open as the "Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific" then opened up the door to Asia and saw the tournament's popularity skyrocket. Broadcast deals ballooned and, as a result, so did prize money.
The appointment of Tiley as Australian Open tournament director in 2006 was also beneficial to players' hip pockets; he and his team would go above and beyond for its athletes, from providing state of the art facilities at Melbourne Park to offering unmatched compensation opportunities. His tenure has consistently been lauded by players from all over the globe.
But it's just in the past decade where the Australian Open's prize pool has grown at an unprecedented rate. 2013's total of AU$30 million doubled to AU$62.5 million by 2019 and had it not been for a pair of relatively flat years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it would almost certainly have doubled again by 2023.
Another change to tournament prize money in recent years has been the significant push to increase the percentage of the prize pool going to early-round losers, in an effort to ensure lower-ranked players can make a decent living and aren't operating at a net loss, despite making a Grand Slam appearance.
The Australian Open has adopted this philosophy.
In 2013, Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka cashed winners' cheques for AU$2,430,000, while first-round losers of that tournament each received AU$27,600. This fortnight, champions will receive 22% more than a decade ago, while those who don't win a main draw match take home almost four times as much.
"We've upped prize money for every round from qualifying, through to the finals, with the major increases in the early rounds, where these substantial rewards help players invest in their own careers and in many cases, set themselves up for success throughout the year," Tiley explained.
Of course, income tax is paid on all prize money earned at the tournament. In Australia, any earnings in excess of AU$180,000 are taxed at a rate of 45%. This year's singles champions are likely to take home a figure closer to AU$1.6 million, not quite the near AU$3 million advertised winnings. Those knocked out in the first round would clear around AU$79,000, losing nearly 25% to the Australian Tax Office.
But even with the tax cut, it's an astonishing amount of growth in 50 years.