The £50,000 Marcus Willis collected in two matches at Wimbledon this week sounds like the sort of money that would encourage young players across the country to rush to their nearest tennis club and start swinging a racket.
The reality, as Willis and Andy Murray know, is somewhat different. Murray, the world No2, has just been voted on to the ATP players’ council and hopes he can do some good for players on the outer fringes of the game.
As he prepared for his second-round match against the world No76 Lu Yen-hsun – who embarrassed him at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 – Murray reflected on the dilemma facing the part-timer Willis, No772 in the world, as well as other low-ranked British players such as Liam Broady, whom he defeated in three sets on Tuesday.
“The first thing is we need to improve the prize money at Futures level,” Murray said of the lowest rung of men’s professional tennis. “I think it’s stayed the same since the 1980s, but the cost of everything has gone up massively since then, so it’s impossible to stay at that level for more than a couple of years.”
Willis revealed that he returned from his last proper tournament, in Tunisia in January, with just €60. “You are losing money unless you are winning each week,” Murray added. “So, for the guys that are stuck there for a couple of years, playing quarter-finals and semi-finals, you simply cannot fund your career that way.
“The first thing is you have to improve the prize money at the lowest level. It’s been going up everywhere else, at the top of the game, massively. But that hasn’t filtered down to the bottom of the game. That’s something that needs to change.”
Was there a danger, then, that talented players could disappear under the radar? Murray was unequivocal. “Players are breaking through later than they ever were before, they are finding ways to hang around. A lot of the guys play club tennis [as Willis does, in Germany and France] to try to make some extra money, which helps. We don’t have that in this country. You can travel to Europe and do that. In Spain they have a few more money tournaments.
“Someone like Marcus, if he had lost in the pre-qualifying at Wimbledon, we wouldn’t have this unbelievable story and he might not be coming back to play [on the Tour] in January. You never know.
“There has to be more money at the bottom of the game. Some of the $10,000 tournaments, they have a 128-man qualifying draw and it’s $30 to enter the qualifying. That’s a lot of money that doesn’t go to the players. The players at that level really need the money.”
That said, Murray will not be gifting Lu £80,000 here on Thursday to advance into the third round. Murray has started at a great lick, beating Broady in just an hour and 42 minutes, and needs another quick win to settle into the tournament – unlike his slow start to the French Open last week.
And he has the incentive of getting square for losing to Lu in in Beijing, when he got caught up in the euphoria of the occasion. That will not happen in Rio, he promised. “I learned that I was there to play tennis and not just enjoy being part of the Olympics. I turned up late because I had won Cincinnati. I did the opening ceremony and I was hanging out with a lot of the other athletes, stayed in the village. It was great, a great experience. But, when I lost, I was gutted. I realised that my job at the Olympics is to try to win a medal for the country.”
That is the main reason he will stay with his team away from the village this time. “Yeah, and I don’t know what the accommodation is like on-site, either.
“Ideally you would go to the opening ceremony and stay in the Olympic Village. But that didn’t work for me in Beijing. At the Olympics in London, I stayed at home. I was just a lot more focused and in my own little bubble. It was one of the best weeks of my life, so I’m not going to change that this time.”
Murray and his Taiwanese opponent have other history, which is more encouraging for the Scot: each time he has played Lu in a Tour event or slam, he has gone on to win it, here in 2013 and at Queen’s last year. “I didn’t remember that I played him last year,” he said. “I’m not superstitious like that.”
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