Forming a players' union isn't just about Djokovic and other top players

MELBOURNE, Australia -- It's Day 3 of the Australian Open, and here on Court 22, the thermometer is pushing 90. The increasing heat is no problem for the fans who have jammed the five rows of grandstand seats, with most of them appearing to support the doubles team of Wesley Koolhof and Artem Sitak.

It takes Koolhof, who is from the Netherlands, and Sitak, representing New Zealand, just 49 minutes to beat their German opponents, 6-2, 6-1. The two embraced after their easy opening-round win, knowing they had kept their hopes of a major breakthrough alive.

"It's great to get a chance on a big stage," Koolhof said. "This is a place where your career and your life can change in two weeks."

Koolhof could benefit from a career breakthrough.

In the 10 years since turning pro in 2008, Koolhof, 28, has a combined career earnings (singles and doubles) of $320,888. You don't need a math degree to know that's barely a trickle ($32,088 annually) in a sport where the greats like top-ranked Rafael Nadal (career earnings of $94 million in 17 years) and world No. 2 Roger Federer ($111 million over 20 years) finish tournaments holding huge checks.

It's players like Koolhof and Sitak (who's made $601,875 in prize money since turning pro in 2001) who could benefit from a players' union, which, depending on who you ask, may or may not have been discussed during a meeting of Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) on the eve of the Australian Open.

The Daily Mail reported earlier this week that Novak Djokovic requested that ATP officials clear the annual mandatory players meeting last Friday so he could address an important matter. Djokovic reportedly called for his peers to form their own union so they could be better positioned to demand a bigger piece of the financial pie from all tournaments, including majors.

On Tuesday, Djokovic said to the media "not much of what you have wrote is true" and that the story "was a little bit exaggerated."

(Tennis officials at the Australian Open said they would not comment about the comments attributed to Djokovic at the players meeting.)

In Djokovic's mind, the story made him out to look greedy -- and if he sought increased pay for just top players, that wouldn't be far-fetched considering his $109 million career earnings over 15 years.

But what if, over the course of the meeting, someone made the argument that players across the board receive bigger percentage of earnings, with better payouts for the bottom-of-the-rung players?

In a sport with increased revenues in television rights and corporate sponsorships, wouldn't that be the right thing to do?

It's been reported that players on the ATP tour receive between 15 and 28 percent of revenue from tournaments, with the cut reportedly even less from lucrative Grand Slam events.

That pales in comparison with leagues like the NBA, where players receive between 49 and 51 percent of basketball-related income in the current seven-year agreement. The minimum salary for an NBA rookie this season is $815,615, while a 10-year-veteran is guaranteed $2.2 million.

Yes, the take for players at major tournaments has increased in recent years, with this year's winners at the Australian Open receiving $3.1 million (an increase from $2.7 million from last year) and first-round losers walking away with $34,500 this year.

Not bad for a day's work.

But when you're at a non-major, you don't get that kind of money for just showing up.

And if you're a player ranked outside the top 100 in singles (and the top 50 in doubles), playing tennis continues to be a struggle. Between flights, hotels gear and training facilities, the hardships of professional tennis players who exist outside the limelight have been well-documented.

For every top-level multimillionaire like Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, there are players like Koolhof and Sitak, who are not far removed from playing in tournaments where they received $100 checks.

"I turned professional when I was 18, and I tried to make it in singles for eight years," Sitak said. "I played in a lot of club matches and tournaments just to pay the cost of travel. I remember those small checks."

For Koolhof, the pursuit of a career in tennis often meant humbling moments where he had to look his parents in the eye and plead for support.

"Money from my parents, financial support from the federation, I needed it all," Koolhof said. "Every year, I had to reflect on how can you afford to do this another year.

"But tennis is something I've done since I was 4 years old. It's tough to stop. It's my life."

Neither would comment on what was said during Friday's meeting among players. But both spoke of sticking to their dreams of continuing their journey in a sport that hasn't been, to them, lucrative.

The lack of money hasn't robbed them of their joy. Koolhof and Sitak were both grinning ear to ear just after their match ended Wednesday while enjoying a moment with a few fans off to the side of Court 22.

A guarantee of one more match, and a bigger check.

After greeting fans and friends, Koolhof and Sitak made their way to the media center for interviews.

Past the Grand Slam Oval, where people lined up to pay hefty prices for a wide array of delicacies and libations.

Past the ATMs, where fans were withdrawing funds they'd soon be separated from.

And past Rod Laver Arena -- in the middle of a $268 million modernization project -- where an appearance by the two at the end of two weeks would mean the realization of a life-altering journey.

Money surrounds Koolhof and Sitak for every step they make on the grounds of the Australian Open.

Why shouldn't they get a bigger share?

No one should have to deny advocating for increased pay for Koolhof, Sitak and the hundreds of players like them playing tennis. And tournament officials say bigger paydays are on the horizon.

Will those bigger pays sustain players like Koolhof and Sitak?

Who knows.

But regardless of what happens -- for richer or poorer -- they assure you they'll be OK.

"Coming here to the Australian Open, you're a part of history," Sitak said. "You come here and you see Federer and Nadal walking around, and you feel like you're a part of something with the big boys. It feels special."