A couple of items in a record book brought a real jolt the other day.
For that second U.S. Open title, Laver won $16,000.
On another page, it said the men's winner (and the women's) of this year's U.S. Open will get $3 million. Also, either of these winners is in line for an additional $1-million bonus if they won the lead-up U.S. Open tournament series.
Certainly, much time has passed and much inflation has set in. But still, are any of these current players worth $3,984,000 more than Laver? Not now. Not ever.
Will anybody again win two calendar Grand Slams? Not now. Not ever.
Yes, that was a different time. No, Laver didn't have to wade through the depth of competition that Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic and the top men face now. And yes, three of the four majors were played on a surface best suited to his game, grass.
Still, there is inflation and there is insanity.
We are well into the second week of the U.S. Open. Despite oppressive heat and depressing results from the very people this event is made to develop and support, U.S. players, the crowds keep pouring in. Attendance has been above 700,000 for six of the last seven years, and the only time it fell short was 2011, when rain washed out four sessions.
Ten years ago, the total prize money was $17.7 million. This year, with the grand finale taking place Monday night at the behest of television — doesn't everything in sports these days take place at the behest of television? — they will distribute $38,251,670 in prize money.
Several sources list Laver's career prize money as $1,565,413. You don't have to go deep into the alphabet-arranged ATP press book for a comparison. Nicolas Almagro of Spain is listed first. His career prize money is $8,670,906. His best results in the major tournaments that Laver won 11 times is four quarterfinals.
Does all this money make tennis better, or merely corrupt it?
It does both.
For those of the current generation who have individually dedicated themselves to excellence in a sport — Federer, Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, the Williams sisters and several more — the money is less corrupting. Fires burn within to win, and great matches and entertainment come from that.
But so many more are just cashing checks. Just getting into the main draw of singles here was worth $30,000. That kind of money produces contentment in defeat. A good portion of these players conduct their post-match interviews in a "what-me-worry?" code.
They speak about progress, about the next tournament, because there always is one, with more corporations writing checks so they can put their company's name on the back wall of center court. They talk about needing patience, while their coaches sit in the back of the room and wish they talked about needing more heart.
It all comes down to something simple. They are cashing nice checks. Life is good. Hunger isn't an issue, not in life and not on the court.
At the moment, the hunger seems the least for those players from the U.S. It isn't a huge issue yet, because tennis crosses the boundaries of provincialism much better than other sports. Fans adore Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, Murray, the Williams sisters and several more, without pausing to check their passports. They are great players, interesting personalities, and they transcend borders.
But it is not hard to wonder if the next wave is up to carrying the sport; if, in the midst of all our current contented cash-checkers — all too many of them U.S. players — there is one wanting it enough to pursue history more avidly than bank statements.
The USTA will continue to make massive amounts of money on this event. A major part of its mission is player development, and not player development in Estonia. Lots of people are paid huge salaries to that end.
Currently, the results do not justify the salaries.
There will come a point of further eyebrow raising here — even more than now, where 33-year-old Serena Williams is all that's left of excellence in U.S. tennis — when a U.S.-funded tournament distributes nearly $40 million mostly to people not from the U.S. It almost sounds like a project for the IRS.
The USTA handling of young Catherine (CiCi) Bellis is a sign that some panic is setting in.
She beat the 12th-seeded woman in the first round of the main draw and two days later, spurred on by social media and knee-jerk news judgment by mainstream outlets, had people lining up for hours to watch her play her second round. She lost, of course, but was seeded No. 1 in the juniors and put out on a show court (the Grandstand) in her first and second rounds.
Tuesday, in her second-round junior match, she lost to an unseeded Russian, raising eyebrows about the seeding. After each round, she was paraded into the media area for interviews.
She is 15.
The cow has left the barn on the money issue. Expect a $5-million champion's purse at a major in a few years.
Soon, the USTA might need to offer something like that for any U.S player, other than one named Williams, who makes the quarterfinals.
They could pay Rod Laver to come and make the presentation.