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TENNIS : New Men's Pro Tour Having Difficult Time Getting Started

November 12, 1989|THOMAS BONK

Men's professional tennis, which will soon move into a new decade with a new name, continues with an old problem: It just can't seem to stop double-faulting.

This may not be a bulletin to those who follow the often wacky world of men's pro tennis.

We know that in 1990 the Assn. of Tennis Professionals will run its own tour, which means that the Nabisco Grand Prix format is disappearing from sight faster than a serve by Boris Becker. But what we didn't know was that the new ATP tour would find it so difficult to do business when it's not even in business yet.

What has gone wrong?

1. When the ATP announced the number of tournaments each player must play, the players were shocked to learn that they would probably be playing more often than they did under the hated Grand Prix format.

2. After the ATP announced its 1990 schedule, it was quickly determined that the Davis Cup dates were in conflict with what the International Tennis Federation had in mind for those dates.

3. A month after ATP leader Hamilton Jordan strongly defended sanctioning two tournaments in South Africa, Jordan, in the wake of worldwide protest, reversed his position and the ATP dropped the events.

But all of those gaffes pale in comparison to the latest uproar, the result of an apparent attempt by the ITF to scuttle the ATP and its crown jewel tournament, the season-ending ATP finals.

Although the ITF's Grand Slam Committee said that its $6-million Grand Slam Cup was not meant to harm the ATP Tour, the Cup offers $2 million to the winner, which matches the entire prize purse of the ATP finals and is twice as much as the total prize money for 128 players at this year's Australian Open.

Since the Grand Slam Cup is not part of the ATP tour and carries no computer points, it is regarded as an exhibition, with players qualifying on the basis of Grand Slam results and Davis Cup competition. There is already some speculation that the ITF will soon get into the ratings business itself by assigning computer points to its four Grand Slam events as well as the new Grand Slam Cup.

The ATP has threatened to retaliate against the ITF, saying that the "Grand Slam exhibition is a blatant and petty attempt by the ITF and the Slams to disrupt the new (ATP) Tour, which the elite ITF leadership and the Grand Slams have steadfastly opposed.

"We do not intend to engage in petty games with the ITF, but the ATP Tour is resolved to take strong action to protect the interests of the tournaments and the players which compose the new system."

The Grand Slam Cup is scheduled for Dec. 10-16, 1990, possibly in Stuttgart, West Germany, two weeks after the ATP season-ending event in Frankfurt and during the so-called "off period" that is to last until the 1991 Australian Open in late January. However, the West German Tennis Federation refused this week to sanction the Grand Slam Cup.

Several leading players who would benefit from the ITF event have criticized it, among them John McEnroe and Boris Becker, using terms such as obscene and grotesque, but ITF officials have defended the amount of prize money it will offer.

"The same (words) would have been said 10 years ago about all the tournaments today with $1 million, or more, in prize money," said Bill Babcock, administrator of the Grand Slam Committee. "Market forces have inevitably pushed the prize money levels up."

The Grand Slam Cup would be limited to eight players based on their performance in the Grand Slam events--Wimbledon and the Australian, French and U.S. Opens--as well as the Davis Cup.

The key figure in this latest controversy is Becker.

If Becker plays, the event gains instant credibility. If he does not play, it may be an automatic flop. Becker, who has tremendous drawing power in West Germany, said he has not decided if he will play in the Grand Slam Cup.

"It could create problems with the ATP tour," he said. "The Grand Slam Cup is facing a lot of problems, and I will like to talk to some people at the ITF to know what they are going to do about it, apart from giving so much money."

Becker wondered how the Grand Slam Cup would be affected if he were not part of the field.

"A Grand Slam has a tradition behind it and that event is only money and, in my opinion, it's just not my thing," he said. "It wouldn't influence me. Rather it would influence the ITF, who would have a tournament in Germany without Boris Becker. It's like having Roland Garros (the French Open) without Yannick Noah."

"If the tournament were to be played in the United States, it wouldn't be such a story if I didn't go," he said. "But in Germany, it is more of a problem."

Becker, who turns 22 on Nov. 22, has made more than $5.5 million in official earnings in his career and has earned many times that in exhibitions and endorsements.

"I think for the future of tennis and the sake of the game, it must be a very serious decision to take and not only think about money," Becker said.

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