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By Martyn Herman
LONDON, April 23 (Reuters) - Wimbledon organisers moved to justify a staggering 40 percent rise in total prize money on Tuesday that will make the pot at this year’s championships the biggest ever in tennis.
Players at this year’s grasscourt grand slam, which starts on June 24, will receive a total of 22.6 million pounds ($34.45 million) with the men’s and women’s singles champions each pocketing 1.6 million pounds ($2.44 million).
Last year’s Wimbledon singles champions earned 1.15 million pounds - 39 percent less.
“These are significant increases and we have made them because we wanted to and not because we had to,” All England Club chairman Philip Brook told reporters at a news conference on Tuesday that also outlined a redevelopment of the site including putting a roof on Court One by 2019.
“We understand and appreciate the difficulties for all players reaching the top echelons of our sport. It’s a long and expensive road to the top and it’s getting longer.”
Asked if the rises were justifiable during a harsh economic climate in which many people struggled just to afford tickets for the prestigious tournament, he said Wimbledon had to compete with other major sporting events.
”I know the economic climate is difficult, I accept that, but the world that we live in is a world where we are competing with other international tennis events and we also keep an eye on what is happening in other sports.
”We do think that this was a moment in time when we could respond to a subject that has been spoken about a lot over the last 18 months and we have chosen to make these increases this year because we feel it’s the right thing to do.
”Fans won’t pay the price (through ticket increases),“ he added. ”It’s an affordable increase in terms of our overall operations here.
“We’ve had early discussion about 2014 ticket prices and there won’t be any significant change to how we look at that.”
Brook said there had been no pressure from the world’s leading players but said the increases reflected calls for more prize money for the lesser-ranked players who are often packing their bags after the early rounds.
Players who lose in the opening three rounds at Wimbledon this year will be the chief beneficiaries of the prize money rises with increases of between 62 and 64 percent.
Those who fail to survive a single match in the main draw at the championships will be rewarded with a 23,000-pound cheque, up from 14,500 pounds last year.
“We started last year focusing the prize-money increases on those that lose in the early rounds or qualifying,” Brook told Reuters. “These are not players who are superstars (but) players who are finding their way and not making a lot of money.”
A women’s singles player who bows out in the first round without winning a game will still be rewarded with a cheque that is close to the average annual earnings in the UK. With a 6-0 6-0 demolition usually lasting less than 45 minutes, Wimbledon officials were quick to defend their generosity.
Richard Lewis, chief executive of the All England Club, said the public should recognise that the riches enjoyed by the likes of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic through prize money and sponsorship were not available to rank and file tour players.
“It’s not just the top players, we have to make the sport attractive to the next generation of talent and that means that players ranked 50 to 100 or 100 to 200 need to know that they can make a good living.”
Even defeat in the qualifying rounds will be tempered by a 41 percent rise with 12,000 pounds going to players who fall at the last hurdle before the main draw.
Doubles players will also benefit form the increased prize money with the winning pair sharing 300,000 pounds as against 260,000 in 2012.
Outlining a new masterplan to upgrade he facilities at the All England Club, Brook said a roof over Court One, like the one installed over Centre Court in 2009, would help to maintain Wimbledon’s place among the elite tournaments.
Designing a retractable roof on the 11,500-capacity court would be “complicated”, however, Brook said.
”The design process will take two years and then, in view of the fact that the Centre Court roof took three years to construct, we are looking at 2019 for it to be working.
Other plans included three more show courts on the north side of the grounds, enhanced practice facilities and more landscaping of the south-west London site. ($1 = 0.6560 British pounds) (Editing by Clare Fallon and Pritha Sarkar)