Melbourne: The debate over fair pay at the Grand Slams comes into sharp focus on court eight at Melbourne Park, where Israeli doubles veterans Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram will share USD10,000 for their 84-minute first-round loss to the American Bryan brothers.

Once flights, accommodation and taxes are accounted for, the Tel Aviv-based duo will have little to show for their trip Down Under and they gloomily endure a post-match interview with a solitary reporter asking them just where things went wrong.

Things could be worse, of course. "We're going to keep playing because we play for fun," Ram said with a shrug at Melbourne Park.

"We are very rich, yes. Very rich." Ram is only half-joking. The 31-year-old has earned nearly USD2.6 million in prize money since he turned professional in 1998. Erlich, best man at his wedding and a Davis Cup team mate, has earned USD1.8 million.

They want for little on tour, where organisers lay on food, alcohol and transport. Laundry is taken care of. Practice courts are easily arranged and physiotherapists are available to work on niggles.

"Life is beautiful, I don't know why anyone complains. I have two kids and I still do it and I make a living from it," said Erlich, who won the doubles title here with Ram in 2008.

"We love the game, we love the travelling and we make a good living from it.

"We go to different countries every week. So I think a lot of people can't complain about it."

But complain they do and in recent months, with increasing volume.

ATP players proposed boycotting the Australian Open at a closed-door meeting on the weekend before the tournament and have grievances ranging from the distribution of Grand Slam prize money to concerns over the length of the calendar.

Erlich and Ram make enough to keep going but "like all workers" would be happy to take more.

"From what I understand, Grand Slams are making USD200 million and the players get 10-12 percent of all this money," said Ram. "All the players probably think they can increase (this share) much more -- 20-25-30 percent.

"Obviously, it's a big fight, it's a long way to go. We'll see. We have the top players fighting for it and we'll see. I think everybody is behind it."

INCREASES VARY

The Australian Open raised total prize money by AUSD1 million (USD1.05 million) to AUSD26 million this year, an increase of four percent.

But the increases vary from level to level. While the singles winner's shares went up 4.5 percent to AUSD2.3 million, doubles players' pay remains frozen at 2011 levels.

Players knocked out at the fourth round of the singles might consider themselves the real winners, with a 17 percent pay rise at Melbourne Park from the previous year.

While lucrative, the Australian Open earns far less than Ram's estimate of USD200 million, with Tennis Australia reporting revenues of AUSD149 million across all of its events for the 2010-11 financial year.

"I know from doubles players' point of view we haven't had a raise in prize money, especially in the early rounds in... any of the slams for the last 10 years," said American Eric Butorac, a doubles representative on the ATP Players Council.

"When it's the same level over 10 years, if you count inflation, we're actually at a 30 percent discount.

"We understand the top players bring in most of the money of the sport," added 28-year-old Butorac, who has made nearly USD900,000 in prize money over an eight-year career.

"We would obviously like it split a little more 'socialistically'... When they're upping their prize money, it's not actually true for most of the players. Their prize money is not going up at the same rate that the winner's cheque is."

UNPRECEDENTED UNITY

The players have spoken of unprecedented unity in their desire for change and are generally optimistic about having their demands acted upon, with new ATP chief Brad Drewett a former tour journeyman.

The ATP has added an extra two weeks to the off-season but players have hinted at boycotting ATP events and future Grand Slams if the prize money issue is not resolved.

Balancing the conflicting demands of players like ATP vice-president Rafa Nadal, who has earned more than USD45 million in prize money, and the journeymen of the doubles tour remains a challenge.

Cracks have already appeared in the unified front with strike hints being made to media at Melbourne Park despite an agreement at the players' meeting to keep their mouths shut.

"We decided something there," Austrian former world number eight Jurgen Melzer said. "When we sat down in the meeting we said nothing leaves that room. I know players have broken it. I'm not going to break it.

"I believe that when we want to be united and we want to be strong, we have to stick together."

Strike action would be terrible for the game, said Butorac, but worse for players like him who survive off the profile players like Nadal bring to the sport.

"People who read the newspapers only see 'the millionaires are complaining again'. They don't see guys like us grinding. We're not in the frame."

(Agencies)