By Simon Cambers
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Stephane Robert pocketed the biggest payday of his 13-year career at the Australian Open on Saturday, earning A$135,000 ($118,900) as he became the first lucky loser to reach the last 16 in Melbourne.
For a 33-year-old who has spent most of his career on the Challenger Tour, the second rung of the professional ladder, such windfalls are the exception rather than the rule.
Robert beat Martin Klizan of Slovakia, another lucky loser, 6-0 7-6 (7-2) 6-4 to reach the fourth round at Melbourne Park, having squeezed into the main draw when Germany's Philipp Kohlschreiber pulled out through injury.
The Frenchman, who reached a career-high ranking of 61 in 2010, will move back into the top 100 as a result but this time last year, he was ranked 280th in the world and thinking about retiring.
"Last year was difficult because I was 280 so I had to be careful with money and I was going to backpackers sometimes," Robert told Reuters.
"But I enjoy it, I meet people, so it's OK. I don't mind. I don't need anything. I feel happy with what I'm doing. I can sleep in backpackers sometimes when I'm not practicing.
"Not during a tournament because you're in something more comfortable (but) it's quite fun."
Unlike many players, Robert seems to have found a happy medium, playing most of the year on the Challenger Tour but then raising his game for the grand slam events.
"I knew at the end of last year, if I wanted to play a lot of Challengers, I had to play good at grand slams because that's where I could pick up some big money.
"I don't know if it changed my motivation, but for sure it's good to have good results in grand slams."
While the winners of the Australian Open will take home A$2.65 million, the total prize pot at many Challenger Tour events is $40,000, leaving many players struggling to make ends meet.
In the past, some players have chosen not to fly to Australia for the qualifying event because the costs of travel and accommodation outweighed the likely rewards.
But Australian Open organizers, who want to spread the wealth, have given every player in the main draw and qualifying an extra A$1,500 to help out this year.
"It's important because then I can use it," Robert said. "Although I made some money in my career anyway so I am not struggling or just surviving with my tennis."
For others, though, the money is a lifeline.
"I was in New Caledonia, playing a Challenger, and I paid $1,400 to get to Melbourne, so to get that expense back is a good financial help," said Blaz Rola, the world number 185, who won through qualifying and reached the second round.
"When I got the envelope, I thought it was going to be a letter saying welcome to the Australian Open but I opened it and saw a check for A$1,500.
"It was surprising, but it's tough if you're a low ranked tennis player, especially financially."
For Katarzyna Piter of Poland, ranked 119, the money is invaluable.
"As a player outside the top 100, I still have to spend more money than I earn," she said. "It will help me a lot. I will use it for my costs, for food, for the flight, or anything."
There has been some criticism that the top players should also be given the A$1,500 when they really do not need it.
Eighth seed Stanislas Wawrinka, though, said the money was part of an overall effort by the Australian Open to look after all players.
"Ok, so it's not that much for someone like me but I still think it's amazing," Wawrinka said.
"That's why players are all saying it's the best grand slam, not because they give more money but because it shows that they really want the players to be happy, they are improving the facility, they are doing a new roof, a new players' restaurant."
($1 = A$1.1355)
(Editing by John O'Brien)