Tennis-Australian Open prize money raised to record levels

Dec 20 (Reuters) - Australian Open organisers increased prize money for the early losers at the opening grand slam of the season to record levels on Thursday, a move which is likely to quell player unrest and end talk of a strike.

The Australian Open will now pay more prize money per round than any other tournament, with increases also coming in doubles and qualifying matches, but mixed doubles saw a money freeze.

The biggest increases were for first round losers in the men's and women's singles, who will now receive A$27,600 ($29,000), representing a 32.7 percent boost from 2012, with those exiting in the second round taking home $45,500, up 36.6 percent.

The move is likely to appease the players council, led by 17-times grand slam champion Roger Federer, who had been calling for more revenue from the four elite tournaments to be passed down to those hitting the shots.

"Our motivation is to make a major contribution toward helping ensure professional tennis players can make a decent living," Craig Tiley, the Australian Open tournament director, said in a statement.

"As we have said in the past, it is a real issue and needs to be urgently addressed throughout the sport."

In October, Tiley's team announced that the players would be vying for a share of a record A$30 million for the Jan. 14-27 event without giving the breakdown of how that money would be divided.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka of Belarus pocketed A$2.3 million each for their singles successes and a repeat next month in Melbourne would give them A$2.43 million.

While the multi millionaires at the top of the game will appreciate the extra rewards, the players scrambling to make the top 100 of the men's and women's rankings and those who mainly compete in doubles will be happier.

MAIN DRAW

At the 2012 event, Israeli doubles veterans Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram shared A$9,500 for their first-round loss to the American Bryan brothers, offering little in the way of winnings once expenses had been taken into account.

A similar result next month will see the pair collect A$12,500.

"That is why the biggest increases are in the earlier rounds, qualifying and doubles which in effect rewards a lot of the lower-ranked players for their achievements which, by the way, should not be undersold,"

"To just reach the main draw of a slam, a professional tennis player has to be among the top 100 in what is one of, if not the most, competitive professional sport in the world," Tiley added.

"At the same time, we also still want to continue to recognise the incredible drawing power and contribution of the top players."

On Monday, the men's governing body, the ATP, gave a lukewarm response to the U.S. Open increasing prize money for the 2013 edition by $4 million to a record $29.5 million.

"The ATP remains committed to continuing discussions on this issue, with the objective of ensuring that the players' share of the revenues at the U.S. Open truly reflects the value that they generate for the event," the body said.

Tiley said his team had been in full discussion with the players and tours before announcing their increases with more likely to come

"It is always a balance which is why we undertook unprecedented consultation on this subject with the tours and players who have been extremely supportive," Tiley said.

"We will not be stopping here. There will be more talks and more increases during the next four years. This is just a very positive first step."

($1 = 0.9528 Australian dollars) (Reporting by Patrick Johnston in Singapore; Editing by John O'Brien)

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