MELBOURNE, Australia -- Australian Open organizers have increased prize money by 15 per cent to a record 30 million Australian dollars ($31.1 million) for 2013 in response to player concerns about compensation at Grand Slam tournaments.
Tournament director Craig Tiley said the A$4 million ($4.15 million) increase, announced Tuesday, was the largest from one year to the next in the tournament's history and should attract the strongest available draw of players. Tiley also said he'd been in contact with Rafael Nadal, who had indicated he was still targeting the Australian Open -- from Jan. 14 to 27 -- for his return to Grand Slam tennis from a left knee injury was has sidelined him since Wimbledon.
"Expect Rafa to be one of many great stories in January, including a formidable title defence from our brilliant reigning men's champion, Novak Djokovic, and some major challenges from the great Roger Federer, US Open 2012 champion Andy Murray ..." Tiley said in a statement. Nadal, an 11-time Grand Slam winner, last month said there was no timetable for his return, but he was hopeful of playing in Australia.
The move to increase prize money for the first tennis major of the year followed reports that some players were considering bypassing the tournament if the purse was not increased, particularly for losers in the early rounds.
"We're proud of the fact we've gone to record prize money," Tiley said. "We are supporting the lower-ranked players in their quest for compensation."
Tiley said players were pleasantly surprised by the increase.
"They were appreciative that the Australian Open has again stepped up, given them the number and gone significantly higher than probably they were expecting," he said.
Tennis Australia chief executive Steve Wood said the prize money boost would make the January tournament the richest in tennis history.
"We have led the world in prize money for these incredible athletes," he said, "and we want to ensure that the Australian Open continues to make a major contribution to the financial wellbeing of professional tennis players."
Wood said tournament officials would confer with player representatives to determine how prize money should be distributed. He said Tennis Australia would have to make savings in other areas of its operations to fund the increase.
"We certainly didn't make this decision lightly," he said. "Indeed, our business will suffer from pain as we go to achieve this but we are committed to making a contribution, a major contribution, to the compensation and the conditions of the players on tour and I think $30 million is a major contribution."
The ATP released a statement from executive chairman Brad Drewett welcoming the prize money increase.
"We ... acknowledge the ongoing efforts of Tennis Australia to recognize the role of the players in the success of the tournament," Drewett said. "We also look forward with confidence to continuing these successful discussions with a view to a longer-term understanding."
WTA chief executive Stacey Allaster said the prize money move showed great leadership.
Maria Sharapova said in a statement the increase was "another example of Tennis Australia's vision to lead and look after the players."
"I greatly appreciate this very significant investment in us as athletes and their continued commitment to equality."
The move to increase the tournament's purse followed complaints from players first aired last year. The ATP Players Council, involving leading players including Roger Federer, raised concerns about funding levels and threatened action if those concerns weren't addressed.
The Players Council later played down a reported threat to boycott of the 2012 Australian Open. But Tuesday's prize money announcement was seen as pivotal in addressing player disquiet.
Council representative Eric Butorac last month told reporters that players would not decide what action to take until they heard the Australian Open prize money announcement.
"We don't want to boycott Australia because it's one of the most player friendly tournaments," Butorac said at the time. "But we think that in men's tennis we put on a pretty good show and we should be compensated fairly."
In 2012, the Australian Open offered A$20,800 to first-round losers while the French Open paid 18,000 Euros (A$21,700), up 20 per cent on 2011. Wimbledon paid A$22,100 this year -- an increase of 26 per cent on the previous year -- and the U.S. Open $US23,000 (A$22,100) for players who lost in the first round.
Tiley said there could be 30-60 per cent increases in some rounds next year. But he said he didn't believe first-round losers should benefit as much as players who lose in the second, third or fourth round.
"I'm personally of the belief that you get rewarded based on performance -- so when you win," he said.