The first U.S. Open, in 1968, awarded a total of $100,000 in prize money. The men's champion, Arthur Ashe, was slated to earn $14,000 of that, but because of his amateur status, he was ineligible to receive the prize money and brought home just a $20 per diem. Only 6% of the total, $6,000, went to the women's champion, Virginia Wade.
Since then, the prize money at the tournament has skyrocketed. Plus, women achieved pay parity in 1973, when both champions received checks for $25,000. The men's and women's champions earned six figures for the first time in 1983 ($120,000) and seven figures for the first time in 2003 ($1,000,000).
At the 2019 Open, champions Rafael Nadal of Spain and Bianca Andreescu of Canada both collected $3.85 million checks. The runner-ups, Daniil Medvedev of Russia and Serena Williams of the U.S., earned about half that amount: $1.9 million.
Even with the big increases in prize money, though, "it can be difficult for players to make much of a profit off competing," No. 14 ranked John Isner writes on Forbes.
"The expenses can really add up, particularly at tournaments like Wimbledon and the French Open," adds Isner, who not only pays for his own flights, meals and lodging, but also covers his coaches' and trainers' travel costs. "In those cases, if I don't win a match, I'm actually in danger of losing money for competing."
Isner, like other top-ranked players, is in the fortunate situation where he doesn't have to rely on just prize money to cover his expenses: He has a handful of sponsorship deals, which are "the closest thing to a guaranteed annual salary that a player has," he says.
Finding sponsors ins't always easy, though, especially if you're not a top-ranked player. "You do well as a pro tennis player when you're ranked in the top 20. But that can be short-lived," Isner explains. "Brands are paying you to get their logos on televised show courts, so if your matches aren't being featured on broadcasts because your play has fallen off ... or because you're injured and not playing at all — they're going to stop calling."
Players without sponsors have to win to pay the bills. "And winning is hard," Isner says, "which means it's really hard to bring in prize money consistently."
The bigger the tournament, the bigger the check: At smaller scale pro circuit events, where the total pot ranges from $15,000 to $100,000, first-round losers may take home just a few hundred dollars.
At the U.S. Open, on the other hand, players who make the main singles draw are guaranteed $58,000 — and if they win one round, they make six figures.
Here's the full breakdown of how much the men's and women's singles competitors earned at the 2019 U.S. Open. The amounts listed are what players who lost in the corresponding round earned.
- Semifinalist: $960,000
- Quarterfinalist: $500,000
- Round of 16: $280,000
- Round of 32: $163,000
- Round of 64: $100,000
- Round of 128: $58,000
Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!