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No One's Serving for Free

Tennis: U.S. Davis Cup players are being paid up to $100,000 per round for representing their country.


Having tried everything to compel American tennis players to participate in the venerable Davis Cup competition--including appealing to their recessive patriotism--officials at the U.S. Tennis Assn. finally opted for the direct approach. They got out their checkbooks.

American players who represent their country in the international competition this year have had their pay quadrupled--from $25,000 per round to $100,000. Whether for money or country, the event has drawn the participation of the top two players in the world--No. 1 Pete Sampras and No. 2 Michael Chang, who will play singles matches Friday against No. 3 Patrick Rafter and No. 21 Mark Philippoussis of Australia in the Davis Cup semifinal at Washington, D.C.

Sweden plays host to Italy in the other semifinal this weekend, with the semifinal winners scheduled to meet Nov. 28-30 in the final.

Money may not be the motivation for multimillionaires such as Sampras and Chang, but to the USTA, which will provide it, the raise is intended as a gesture. It almost certainly makes the U.S. Davis Cup team the highest paid in the world.

In singles, U.S. players are paid $100,000 for each round they play. If a player participates in three Davis Cup rounds in a year, he receives a $100,000 bonus. Doubles players are paid $50,000 per round, with a bonus for playing three rounds.

Each player may designate a charity or foundation, usually his own, to which the USTA directly pays the first $25,000.

U.S. Davis Cup captain Tom Gullikson said the reality of professional sports is that players should be paid.

"The players aren't obligated to play," he said. "The USTA has no control over them. They are free agents. The fact that they are compensated for their time and effort isn't such as strange concept. It's also a reflection of the players we have--they are the best in the world."

Competitors in the Ryder Cup, golf's top international team competition, do not get paid. The Ryder Cup, which pits a team of U.S. golfers against a team of Europeans, is held every two years, and will take place this weekend in Sotogrande, Spain.

According to a U.S. Tennis Assn. official who spoke on condition of anonymity, the impetus for the pay raise did not come from the players.

"Money has never been an issue with the players, it really hasn't," the official said. "We did institute the charity payments at the request of the players, though. All of them wanted that and we responded."

To the chagrin of U.S. and international tennis officials, it always seems to be the Americans who are reluctant to represent their country in the nearly century-old Davis Cup competition. With a few exceptions, players around the world are flattered and excited about Davis Cup.

Not so here. Sampras usually plays, but only in the later rounds. Chang played once last year and was not expected to play this year. Andre Agassi played in the second round against the Netherlands but was not selected for the match against Australia.

Players frequently cite tennis' cramped schedule as the reason they have difficulty participating, yet through mutual agreement with all parties, the professional tour shuts down during the four Davis Cup weeks throughout the year so that there are no conflicting tournaments.

When players complain of "scheduling," they can mean many things:

* The problem may be travel, such as the difficulty posed for American players who had to travel from the Australian Open to Brazil for the first Davis Cup match in February.

* The problem may be a drastic change of surfaces. Players have to be prepared, in the middle of hard-court season, to fly thousands of miles to play a Davis Cup match on clay. The home team has the choice of surfaces.

* The problem may be the loss of rest or recovery time. Although most players build off-weeks into their schedules, and the Davis Cup week is a "free" week when they aren't missing a tournament, some players relish the down time.

* The problem may be commercial. Just because there are no tournaments on the tour doesn't mean players can't play. Top tennis players schedule several exhibitions that pay lucrative fees, more than the $100,000 the USTA offers. Also, the Davis Cup weeks allow players' sponsors a chance to shoot print ads or television commercials.

U.S. Davis Cup Chairman Bo Driskill did not want to discuss details about player payments, but said the USTA understands the realities of the marketplace.

"We have to ask ourselves, 'What could this player make elsewhere in that weekend?' " he said. "You have to look at what the guys are worth. We don't pay anywhere near what Pete Sampras could command in an event, but we're up there."

With this in mind, the USTA responded to player complaints two years ago and provided Sampras, Agassi and their teammates tickets on the Concorde to speed them in comfort to a Davis Cup match in Italy.

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