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The Stakes Match : In Tennis' Imitation and Rival of Golf's Skins Game, the Rich Get Richer

November 27, 1987|LISA DILLMAN | Special to The Times

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — One player is named Cash. Another is a Czech. All that is needed in this high-profile game, actually it's official name is The Stakes Match, is a guy named Green.

So, where is Robert Green when we need him?

What tennis is undertaking indeed might be called a historic step--albeit one that has been assailed by the purists as greed run amok.

For, in South Florida today, four of the world's top tennis players--Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Pat Cash and Stefan Edberg--have gathered to play against one another for outrageous sums of money, even as far as tennis standards are concerned.

Give them suits and ties and it might as well be another crazy day on Wall Street.

Naturally, in a sport in which it's hard to get the powers-that-be to agree on anything--other than what day it is--this event has drawn sharp criticism from some quarters and guarded optimism from those who have a vested interest.

Bud Collins, longtime television commentator and journalist, labeled The Stakes Match, "a monument to greed."

The three-day exhibition at the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club is a product of ProServ, the Washington-based management agency, and two other partners. It's also a creation made for television, nothing more, nothing less.

At least Donald Dell, ProServ chairman, has been upfront about what exactly this is, saying that they're not trying to pass The Stakes Match off as a traditional tournament, rather, it is a television event in the truest sense.

And, don't forget, The Stakes Match will make four wealthy tennis players even wealthier. Each competitor begins with a $250,000 stake. The first two days the players will meet in round-robin matches, the winner determined when someone reaches 15 points.

Finally, on Sunday, the top two money winners from the round-robin competition will play best-of-five, 15-point games. The first game is worth $30,000 and increases by $30,000 each game, making the fifth and final game worth $150,000. During the first two days of round-robin play, each game is worth $30,000.

Additionally, players can earn $2,000 for a service ace and lose $2,000 for a double fault. Another aspect is the rally point, as each time the ball crosses the net, the point is worth $200. So, if McEnroe and Edberg have a four-shot exchange won by Edberg, he'll get $800 of McEnroe's money.

"I don't know who is going to perform better under these extraordinary circumstances," said Cliff Drysdale, who, with Arthur Ashe, will announce the event for ABC on Saturday and Sunday. "It's not an easy one to answer, because this is rather like a tiebreaker. It's not easy to say whether a serve-and-volleyer will prevail over a baseliner. It's going to be like a very long tiebreaker."

Three of the four players--Lendl, Edberg and Cash--have qualified for the year-end Masters tournament in New York that starts next week. The fourth, McEnroe, likely would have been among the top eight point earners. However, his two-month suspension from the Grand Prix tour eliminated his chances of joining the elite group.

And, three of the four have won Grand Slam titles this year, with Lendl winning two championships, the French and U.S. opens. Edberg won the first Slam title of the year in Australia. After breaking through to win Wimbledon, Cash struggled through the rest of the season. In fact, his reaching the Masters was by no means a certainty.

In some ways, the format seems to favor McEnroe, whose endurance has been suspect of late. He, maybe more than anyone else, is capable of rattling off a string of winners at will. Curiously, Drysdale thinks the setup may put the No. 1-ranked Lendl at a disadvantage.

"Lendl can be a slow starter," Drysdale said. "He eventually is able to impose himself with sheer power, but it takes him a little while to get his rhythm going. Even though he starts slowly, he knows he's going to get his rhythm, and then there's no stopping him."

Which is fine during a regular match but in this weird world of The Stakes Match, Lendl could find himself down $60,000 before he breaks a sweat.

But it's almost secondary, that is, the competition between the players. The real contest looms between the networks for viewers as the well-established Skins game in Palm Springs also is on television Saturday and Sunday. After all, organizers of The Stakes Match took note of the remarkable success of the Skins game, especially with non-golfing fans, and tried to develop a format that would translate into the same success with tennis.

Drysdale, at least, thinks the risk is worth taking.

"Honestly, I like it," he said. "I think it has the potential to be something people will like, and it could have a favorable effect on men's tennis to have started something different. There are some special events, not part of the Grand Prix tour, I do see as detracting from the game.

"But this event is not one of those things. I think the people would turn this on who would not normally watch tennis. For instance, I'm not a big golf fan, but the Skins game is something I look forward to watching. . . . I think we in tennis have been a little lax in the last few years for not trying different things."

So, today, tennis is trying to make up for lost time, hoping that The Stakes Match might revive or generate some interest in the game. As one player agent reiterated last week, it could be a complete success or a complete fiasco, saying:

"I just hope we don't come out looking like a bunch of idiots on national TV."

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