Contrary to popular belief, Ivan Lendl, whom John McEnroe once described as a robot, really does prefer man to machine. Lendl rejects the very computer rankings that consider him the No. 1 player in men's tennis. He trusts instead his own sentient self, which lost last week to Stefan Edberg in the semifinals of the eight-player Nabisco Masters at Madison Square Garden. Lendl's choice for the top player of 1989 is everyone else's, Boris Becker, winner of this year's Wimbledon and U.S. Open crowns and runner-up in the Masters to Edberg, who prevailed on Sunday 4-6, 7-6, 6-3, 6-1. Despite that setback, Becker most emphatically also considers himself to be No. 1.
This is an article from the Dec. 11, 1989 issue
Lendl and Becker, however, do not agree when it comes to a much more contentious issue, one that promises to have profound ramifications for the future of the game. On the surface it's an old-fashioned labor-management dispute, with roots that go back more than 20 years. The latest subject of discord is the men's tour, which, beginning next year, will be administered by the players themselves through their union, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP). The ATP Tour will replace the Nabisco Grand Prix circuit and culminate in a Masters-style world championship in Frankfurt in November, with $1 million going to the winner.
Members of the International Tennis Federation (ITF), curators of the four Grand Slam events and the Davis Cup, don't much cotton to player power. In a clear slap at the ATP Tour, the ITF recently announced plans for a world championship of its own. Called the Grand Slam Cup, it will feature the eight best performers from the four majors and perhaps the Davis Cup (the particulars of the format have yet to be determined). What's more, it will take place in West Germany (the town has yet to be determined) just three weeks after the ATP Tour World Championship, and the winner will take home a whopping $2 million. Were a player to win all four Grand Slam tournaments, he would collect about half that.
The players' union considers the Grand Slam Cup crass payola, a ploy to cleave the top players from the rank-and-file. The West German Tennis Federation, at the behest of the directors of six German ATP Tour events, has refused to sanction the ITF's event. "Grotesque," is how Gunter Sanders, executive director of the federation, describes the Grand Slam Cup's lucre. "To give $2 million to the winner of a tennis tournament at a time when thousands of East German refugees are looking for jobs and housing is not good for our sport."
The ITF stops just short of admitting as much. "It is true that we are using the means that I often fought against before," the ITF's courtly president, Philippe Chatrier, has said. "But the dollar is king, and we have to accept it."
With the old-guard ITF behaving as if the money-mad '80s aren't ending, and the players under the leadership of that engineer of Jimmy Carter populism, ATP executive director Hamilton Jordan, followers of tennis can only guess what to expect from the sport in the '90s. "The money is almost disgusting," says McEnroe, referring to the Grand Slam Cup. "We are in danger of turning into money whores if we don't turn our backs on things like this, and I might."
To hear tennis's whiniest player whine about making too much money is disorienting, particularly in light of the fact that he has made close to $1 million playing no more than nine exhibitions in the last three months. Nonetheless, Becker, Edberg, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang and Brad Gilbert, each of whom was in the Masters, made similar noises last week. All are concerned about the timing and location of the Grand Slam Cup; they worry that it will undermine the players' ability to attract sponsors and fans to the ATP Tour World Championship. If Becker makes good on his vow not to play the Grand Slam Cup should he qualify, the ITF will be hard-pressed to justify the $6 million purse (the runner-up will take home $1 million and so on down to the alternates, who will get $75,000 apiece even if they never lift a racket).
"If I don't play in my home country, I don't think the hall is going to be full," says Becker. "The ITF just wants to make sure everyone knows who are the chiefs. What they have done is terrible. They're not looking at what is best for the game in five or 10 years."
Lendl is the only elite player to welcome the Grand Slam Cup. He and his bride, Samantha, are expecting their first child in May and will have to make ends meet. "Don't spit at somebody who's trying to give you money," says Lendl, whose career winnings exceed $15 million. "If you think it's too much money for yourself, go and play and give it to charity if you want."
Nor is Lendl troubled by the ATP's darkest fear—that the ITF wants to use the Grand Slam Cup as the base for a rival circuit, which would begin in 1991. He seems to have taken to heart lessons of the free market to which his Czech countrymen will soon be introduced. "I think it would be great for tennis to have two tours competing against one another," he says. "If you ask ATP, they say no, it's not. I hope that one tour will push the other to produce a better tour."
Still, the announcement of the Grand Slam Cup came so suddenly, and its scheduling is so clearly provocative, that no one in tennis believes that the tournament is anything but an attempt by the ITF to cling to power. The governing body of the Grand Prix circuit is the nine-member Men's Tennis Council, on which the ITF has three seats. At year's end the MTC will disband, leaving the ITF with control of only the Grand Slam tournaments and the Davis Cup. Says Jordan, "Thing is, if the ITF had done it for only $3 million, it probably could have gotten more players and less criticism."
A player-controlled tour is only the next logical step in the inexorable shift of power in men's tennis from the boardroom to the locker room. The evolution began in 1968 with the advent of the Open era, which eliminated hypocritical distinctions between professionals and amateurs. In '72 the players unionized, and a year later they I boycotted Wimbledon in support of Yugoslavia's Nikki Pilic, who had been suspended by his country's tennis federation in a dispute over (tm) his failure to play in a Davis Cup tie to which he was allegedly committed. In '74 what came to be known as the MTC was formed, with the players holding half of the six seats. (Subsequently, the MTC was expanded to the aforementioned nine seats, of which the players held three.)
The Gdansk shipyard of the most recent unrest was a parking lot outside the National Tennis Center during the 1988 U.S. Open. That's where the players held a press conference—the U.S. Tennis Association had refused to let them use a room inside the tennis center—to announce their plans for a new circuit. In October the MTC offered concessions. But the players said the offers were too little too late and went ahead on their own. "You look after your own car better than the one you rent," says Jordan.
The MTC has been a positive force in the game, but it was so busy trying to bring together all of tennis's disparate constituencies that it never went out and flogged the sport to the public. Jordan sees men's tennis as someday resembling the PGA Tour, with the ATP marketing the circuit so that the typical sports fan starts thinking of men's tennis as a hundred talented players competing on a unified tour rather than as a handful of superstars playing four prestigious dates a year. Beginning in 1990, 18 of the ATP tournaments will have purses worth $1 million or more, 11 of which will have a minimum of six Top 10 players competing. This format will presumably eliminate situations such as the one that Mats Wilander enjoyed in '88, when he won three Grand Slam events: He never faced Becker and played Lendl only once.
The ATP also claims that million-dollar purses will discourage players from playing those devil exhibitions, which often go head-to-head against tournaments. Jordan says McEnroe and Becker have told him that they would consider never playing another exhibition if the new circuit succeeds. The ATP has already collected more than $30 million in sales of worldwide TV rights to its tournaments next year. "Shrink the number of tournaments and force them to raise the prize money," Jordan says. "Then get more of the top players together and get them on TV, and you begin to have a modern sport."
The ATP could do worse than model itself after the Women's International Tennis Association (WITA), whose top players have always taken a more active role in running their tour than their male counterparts have in running theirs. While the WITA has never had any trouble attracting a tour sponsor, as of Monday the ATP still hadn't found a sugar daddy. The men have a much higher prima donna quotient than the women, and doubts persist that they can run their own show. To wit: Just when you think the players have a worldview that extends beyond their next herbal rubdown, they go and put two South African stops on the 1990 calendar. Both tournaments were later dropped.
The ATP's plan to ban on-court microphones seems to be an admission that members can't be trusted to comport themselves properly. McEnroe recently told the Los Angeles Times that he would like Jordan's job, because "it's time for someone with vision to carry it into the 21st century. Hamilton Jordan is a politician. He doesn't know anything about tennis." But there he was on Friday, after a lineswoman had called a foot fault on him during a preliminary-round loss to Lendl, moaning that "her wonderful looks must have gotten this lady her job." If that's vision, tennis would be better off groping in the dark.
Of particular concern is whether the stars will sacrifice for the good of the tour. Says one tour follower who knows the players well, "Tennis is about the Top 5. Is Lendl going to call Becker and say, 'Yo, Boris, I can't make Stockholm next week. Cover for me?' No way."
Still, the players' union is steadfast in its resolve and proud of its motives. "We're trying to improve the sport, and we should be given the opportunity to do so," says McEnroe. "They [the MTC and ITF] have had plenty of time to do it and haven't succeeded. Tennis is successful in spite of what they have done. On the other hand, we may not do it even as well as they do it. It's like being an umpire. It's a thankless job. I hope, because we're players, that we'll have the insight to do the little things better."
The squabble has taken on a deliciously nasty tone, with the players referring to the ITF as the "blue-blazer-and-dandruff crowd." Says Jordan, "I tell the ITF members they're bad losers. They don't practice off the court what they preach on it. I've seen people lose things a hell of a lot more important than this, and they've been gracious."
For his part, Chatrier considers Jordan a Ham-handed interloper, an arriviste with no respect for the game. Chatrier wasn't talking last week, fearing the ATP would "take out of context and distort what I say." But of Jordan he has told the French daily L'Equipe, with no little Gallic hauteur, "He does not even know what a tennis ball is. He knows only about golf and politics."
The verbal volleys are so punchy because the stakes are so high, particularly in tennis-mad West Germany. Only four years ago the MTC was lucky to get $150,000 from the European Broadcasting Union for the right to telecast the Masters on the Continent. The ATP has already struck a reported $5 million deal with a West German network for the West German rights to the world championship and other tournaments.
One night last week several Grand Prix employees trolled through the hospitality tents at the Masters, packing uneaten Nabisco products into shopping bags. As they carried the munchies to homeless New Yorkers huddled near the entrance to Penn Station, beneath Madison Square Garden, their gesture seemed at odds with the unchecked plenty promised by the rivalry between administrators of the Grand Slam tournaments and the players' union. When the ATP Tour begins next year, it will be worth watching to see just how tennis's rich new cookie crumbles.