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Players say prize money increase a positive step

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Players say prize money increase a positive step

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Coco Vandeweghe earned $29,100 for losing in the first round of the Australian Open, or about $370 for every minute she was on court Monday.

That is nowhere near the record $2.56 million that the eventual men's and women's winners will take home, but she says a roughly one-third increase in prize money for players losing in the first few rounds is a step in the right direction.

The Australian Open didn't just boost the overall purse this year, it also partly compensated players for their travel to the tournament, a financial boon for those without multi-million-dollar sponsorship deals who struggle to make ends meet on tour.

``It's not easy paying your expenses week in, week out, traveling all over the world. If you are top 100 in most other sports, you're making millions. Tennis, that's not quite the case,'' the 99th-ranked Vandeweghe said after her loss to 27th-seeded Romanian Sorana Cirstea.

Even though she briefly rose to No. 69 in the world and pocketed more than $140,000 in prize money last year, Vandeweghe didn't hesitate when asked whether she broke even financially. ``No chance,'' she said.

Belgian Olivier Rochus, who also lost in the first round, said the $1,000 check for travel expenses was a big surprise. ``I think it's really nice. They really understand it costs a lot of money for us to come here,'' he said.

The Australian Open has taken the lead among Grand Slams in increasing prize money for the last four years, including a $4.2 million hike for this year's edition, making it the richest Grand Slam tournament. The biggest pay raises were for players who lose in the first three rounds.

In an interview with The Associated Press, tournament director Craig Tiley said the initial motivation was to give the Australian Open a point of difference and keep the players interested in coming.

``I wasn't that long ago - I'd say six or seven years ago - the Australian Open was kind of regarded as the fourth cousin amongst the big four,'' he told AP. ``It wasn't that long we weren't attracting the top players - for many years (John) McEnroe missed it, (Jimmy) Connors missed it.''

But more recently, organizers were also faced with the threat of a player strike on the eve of the Australian Open, in part due to player discontent over how prize money was distributed at the major events.

``The boycott discussion, we weren't fearful of it, but we didn't take it lightly,'' Tiley said. ``We also didn't disagree with what the players were saying.''

``We've always had the view that tennis is a sport where if you're top 200 in the world, you should be the best in your profession, should have the opportunity to earn a living, support the cost of a coach, your own travel and be able to put some money away for your next career or some retirement.''

As it stands, he said, only the top 75 to 80 players make enough each year to do this.

``That's what we're trying to address - to bring the pack closer,'' he said. ``If you don't do that, then the best athletes are going to be attracted to the other sports.''

Marcos Baghdatis has had his up-and-down years since making his debut at a major in 2004, reaching a career-high ranking of No. 8, but only three times finishing in the top 20. In 2012, he had a momentous year off the court - he married former women's pro Karolina Sprem in July and their daughter, Zahara, was born in October.

Now ranked 35th and with a growing family to feed, Baghdatis is among those happy to see the prize money go up in the early rounds at the majors. Since losing the 2006 Australian Open final to Roger Federer and making the semifinals at Wimbledon later that year, he hasn't gone further than the quarterfinals at 22 majors. He advanced to the second round in a late five-set win Monday.

``I think it's great for the sport. We'll see more competition coming if the prize money comes up,'' he said ahead of the tournament. ``Because I think a young kid who has no money, if he gets to four Grand Slams in a year he can invest for his future, and I think that's very important.''

The top men's players - in particular, Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray - have helped push for better compensation for the lower-ranked players on the ATP tour.

Murray, the reigning U.S. Open champion, has seen both sides of the player compensation debate. As a Grand Slam winner and a permanent fixture in the top four since 2008, he has amassed almost $25 million in prize money. He travels with a team of support people including a conditioning expert and often with coach Ivan Lendl, an eight-time major winner. That all costs money.

His older brother, Jamie Murray, ranked 78th in doubles, made just under $100,000 last year.

While the Australian Open has increased its prize money and incentives for players, Murray thinks there are still major issues to overcome at the lower levels of professional tennis.

``I think, to be honest, the issues with tennis go a lot deeper than the ATP Tour,'' he said. ``The Challenger Tour prize money hasn't changed in years. Futures tournaments, I don't think their prize money has changed the last 20 to 30 years.

``That's what is stopping guys playing tennis early rather than the guys that are on the main tour stopping early. So the problem is not so much with the main tour. It's the smaller events. ``

Russia's Alex Bogomolov Jr., who helped highlight the threat of a strike last year with a late-night tweet, said the increase in compensation in Melbourne is a positive step, but players won't have the power to force changes like this at other tournaments without a union similar to the players' unions in the NBA and NFL.

``For me, the only reason I'm still a little sad is by the time I retire, the revenue split will be 50-50. That's the way it's heading,'' he said after his first-round loss on Monday.

``It's going to take years and years for that to happen. What else can we do? We do our job, we play as hard as we can and we are happy that people come to watch us play,'' he said.

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AP Sports Writer John Pye contributed to this report.

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Real Marquee Matchup: Wizards face Jimmy Butler, Heat team that has set good example to follow

Real Marquee Matchup: Wizards face Jimmy Butler, Heat team that has set good example to follow

The 2019-20 season for the Wizards can be viewed as somewhat of a gap year, in that they hope their current organizational reset doesn't take long. It seems to be their goal to be back in the playoff mix next season with John Wall back and Bradley Beal operating through his prime.

Their best path towards doing that may look a lot like the team they face on Wednesday night, the Miami Heat (7:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington). After missing the playoffs last season with a 39-43 record, the Heat are now 30-13 and second in the Eastern Conference.

The jump they have made is unusual, so don't focus too much on the standings. Instead look at how they have improved and how parallels could be drawn to the Wizards.
The Heat are led by Jimmy Butler, an All-Star wing who is a level above everyone else on their roster. The same could be said about Bradley Beal.

They have a point guard in Goran Dragic, who is still effective despite not being the 20-point scoring All-Star he used to be, now that he's lost a step. The way he plays could be a reasonable expectation for Wall as he works his way back to All-Star form coming off an Achilles injury.

Miami has assembled a deep and multidimensional roster around them. They have an ascending young frontcourt player in Bam Adebayo. Rui Hachimura could follow a similar trajectory, albeit as a different style of player.

Miami also has an array of shooters. Duncan Robinson was undrafted, then signed to a two-way contract. Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn are rookies. The Wizards have their own group of emerging perimeter threats in Davis Bertans, Garrison Mathews and Jordan McRae.

The way the Heat win is with an efficient offense that includes deadly-accurate outside shooting and a slightly above average defense. They rank seventh in offensive rating (111.7) and 13th in defensive rating (108.1). And they are second in the NBA in three-point percentage (37.6) and eighth in threes made (12.7/g).

The Wizards are, of course, nowhere near even average on defense. Their defensive rating is 30th in the NBA and they possess none of the traits that make the Heat the defensive team they are. Miami, for instance, is first in opponent three-point percentage (32.7) and also first in defensive rebounding (32.3).

The Wizards, though, do already check off some boxes on offense. They are 11th in offensive rating (110.7) and eighth in three-point percentage (36.5). 

The Wizards have a long way to go to reach Miami's level, but the Heat's approach in a macro sense could be worth following and especially once Wall returns. Though Butler is their clear-cut best player, he only attempts 13.4 shots per game, second-most on the team. Dragic, despite being a former All-Star, takes only 12.1 per game.

The Wizards have long done things differently. Back in 2016-17, when they had their best season in many years, Wall averaged 18.4 shots and Beal took 17.2 per game.

Despite taking fewer shots, Butler is still able to put up numbers. He is averaging 20.2 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game. Combined with his defense, that is plenty to compete for the All-Star team and maybe even All-NBA honors. Meanwhile, he gets credit for being the face of a winning team.

The Heat have a roster that is a bit top-heavy that has been filled out nicely with unheralded moves and young players. That is how the Wizards' roster might be described a year from now. In order to make it work and win some games, they might want to pay attention to how Miami is doing it.

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'MLB The Show 20' features the 'Soto Shuffle' and iconic moments from Nationals' World Series season

'MLB The Show 20' features the 'Soto Shuffle' and iconic moments from Nationals' World Series season

One of the first things some Nationals fans noticed about PlayStation's trailer for the "MLB The Show 20," which was released Wednesday, was the inclusion of the "Soto Shuffle" after Juan Soto takes a ball.

Back in November one (possibly psychic?) Nationals fan tweeted his hope that the newest edition of the game would include Soto's iconic move at the plate, which the outfielder uses to psych-out opponents.

In Game 1 of the NLCS, Cardinals pitcher Miles Mikolas wasn't too happy with the "Soto Shuffle," but Soto never stopped the move.  

According to the preview, the new video game also includes a Trea Turner dugout dance party at Nationals Park and former National Anthony Rendon in his new Los Angeles Angels garb.

No word yet as to whether Gerardo Parra's "Baby Shark" or Adam Eaton and Howie Kendrick's "Clutch and Drive" made the cut. 

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