Eric Butorac played in the doubles main draw at the United States Open from 2007 to 2016. He vividly recalls his warm-up sessions on practice courts that were closer to the nearby subway station than they were to Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens.
“We were lucky when we got to practice on those courts for any length of time,” said Butorac, now the director of player relations at the United States Tennis Association. “If we wanted a long practice we had to go off site completely, sometimes out to Long Island.”
But Butorac, who reached the final in doubles at the 2014 Australian Open, never felt slighted.
“I came from a small town in Minnesota and was just happy to be there,” Butorac said. “For me, it was more about gratitude than about feeling that others had been given more.”
There has long been a hierarchy among tennis players, a distinction between the sport’s top players and everyone else. If Novak Djokovic, a three-time U.S. Open winner, wants to practice in Arthur Ashe for an extended amount of time, rather than outside the gates of the U.S.T.A. Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, he is given that privilege. So are the defending champions Iga Swiatek and Carlos Alcaraz.
Top seeds typically practice and play most, if not all, of their matches on one of three premier courts — Ashe, Louis Armstrong or the Grandstand — which affords them a major advantage. Ashe and Armstrong have retractable roofs, so by playing there, they get to avoid the disruption of rainouts, whereas the lower seeds, playing elsewhere, do not. Many players, of all ranks, also train on practice courts just outside Ashe, where fans can watch from courtside stands.
But for low-ranked players, doubles specialists and players who have gained entry by advancing through a qualifying tournament, finding quality courts to get ready for their matches can often prove challenging. Sometimes, less-accomplished players will arrange to practice with bigger names just so that they can share the more coveted courts.
“When you’re playing the U.S. Open, it’s good to practice with Frances there,” joked 17th-ranked Hubert Hurkacz, referring to Frances Tiafoe, one of last year’s semifinalists.
Many players agree that there is a have-versus-have-not culture in the sport. John Millman, who was ranked No. 33 in 2018, but is now at No. 326, wrote in an article, published in May on the Australian website news.com.au, that at some tournaments he received fewer tennis balls to practice with than high-rated players did.
“Those new balls are being chased around by the big support teams that have received extra accreditation from the tournament,” said Millman, who also wrote that, in addition to being able to bring in more staff to help them during practice, bigger names are given the opportunity to book practice courts first. They then choose the more coveted earlier-morning time slots, so they can finish early.
Alizé Cornet, ranked No. 11 in 2009 but now at No. 65, complained at Wimbledon that when she played on a featured court at a major versus an outside court, she was allocated many more tickets to give away to family and friends.
“I’ve been almost top-10, I’ve been [ranked] 30 and I’ve been 90,” said Cornet, 33. “I definitely felt a little different when I was a seeded player at the Slam, but that’s how society works. The best you are, the more advantage you get.”
Taylor Fritz, the No. 1 ranked American male and No. 9 in the world, sees bigger differences at small tournaments where it is customary for top seeds to be gifted luxurious hotel accommodations and more desirable match times.
“Yeah, I think there are slight advantages, but I also believe that the players that get the advantages have earned them,” Fritz said.
According to John Tobias, executive vice president at GSE Worldwide, a marketing and management company that represents top tennis players, many of them are given cars for their entourages, while other players and their friends, family and fans are relegated to tournament shuttle buses.
Some players rely on accommodations provided at tournament hotels, while Tobias is often able to negotiate deals for his star athletes with upscale hotels that provide free suites in exchange for promotional appearances or mentions on social media.
Cameron Norrie, Britain’s No. 1 player, thinks it’s funny that the better he performs, the less he has to pay for. After reaching the semifinals at Wimbledon last year, Norrie said that he was offered free coffee by his local barista and even had his dry-cleaning bill forgiven, even though he earned more than $600,000 in prize money for that Wimbledon alone.
Many players agreed that perks for performance is a fair exchange. It’s when players are denied equal opportunities to prepare for tournaments that the situation becomes sticky.
“This is a topic that has been going around for a long time,” said Daniel Vallverdu, Grigor Dimitrov’s coach and a former coaches’ representative on the ATP Player Council. “My feeling is that to get to the top you have to go through what the other guys went through. Everyone has the opportunity to go down the same path, to start from the bottom, to make it to the top or not. And those top players are doing a lot more for the events than the lower-ranked guys in terms of media commitments, sponsorship commitments and tickets sales, so you have to incentivize them to come.
“But when it comes to the opportunity to prepare, like access to the right gym, getting enough hours of practice, that’s where it should be as equal as possible,” Vallverdu added. “Anything that influences preparation, and that influences performance, should be very equal.”
The U.S.T.A. is working to give equitable enhancements to all players at the U.S. Open. In addition to providing creature comforts such as recovery rooms and nap rooms, calming red-light therapy and virtual reality games, the association is offering new initiatives this year for players, including an additional free hotel room for a players’ coach or family member or a $600 per diem if players opt to find their own housing. All players’ and coaches’ meals on site are also covered by the U.S.T.A.
The U.S.T.A. also gives all players competing at the Open a $1,000 air travel stipend and $150 to cover airport expenses, as well as five free racket stringings for every day a player has a match. There is also a new app that allows competitors to secure transportation, practice courts, meal allowances and match tickets. Coaches, who are now allowed to give advice during matches, are being given tablets that track match stats.
“There’s no hierarchy in this situation,” said Butorac, who, as director of player relations for the U.S.T.A., also offers a suite to all players where they can pick out Open logo clothing, headphones or even a Tiffany bracelet.
“This program is really geared toward players ranked No. 70 to 80,” he said. “The idea here is they won’t have to spend any money here, and they can take all of their prize money home with them.”
Prize money this year has also been increased by more than 8 percent over last year with the men’s and women’s singles champions each earning $3 million and first-round losers in the singles tournament taking home $81,500. This year marks the 50th anniversary of equal prize money being awarded to men and women at the Open.
Stan Wawrinka, a former U.S., Australian and French Open champion once ranked No. 3 in the world before injuries dropped him out of the top 300, knows the vagaries of being lower-ranked.
“Of course, you have been through it differently when you’re at the top of the game and when you’re down in the ranking,” said Wawrinka, now No. 49. “That’s normal, and that’s how it is. And it’s always going to be like that.
“I always believe it doesn’t matter where I am in the ranking,” Wawrinka added. “It doesn’t matter what court I’m playing on. Doesn’t matter where I have to stay. It’s always going to be special to be in a Grand Slam.”