Tennis: Becker rallies in the political game

Rebuffed once, the former champion is still plotting a stealthy revolution.
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The Independent Online
PERHAPS it has something to do with the proximity of the Millennium, but there are distinct signs that peace could engulf the warring factions in tennis if they are not careful. Sweetness and light are what we are tasting and seeing as the new men's tournament season swings into action tomorrow in Doha and Adelaide.

The International Tennis Federation and the ATP Tour, glaring at each other across a divide since the Tour's formation in 1990, have been cautiously testing the benefits of a common bed, though the duvet is at present clutched to their chests at the sight of a red- headed interloper who wants to do more, far more, than implement the cosmetic changes at present being talked about.

The bedroom invader goes by the name of Boris Becker and his ambitions for revolution are just as fiercely driven as when he was winning Davis Cups for Germany or Grand Slams at Wimbledon and the US and Australian Opens.

Having been Germany's premier athlete and icon for a dozen years, Becker is, at 31, the biggest noise in tennis administration in his homeland with ambitions to extend that to the world. Though Becker will compete in a few events this year, the running of tennis rather than the playing of it is what now fascinates him. He is convinced it could be done better and is bent on showing how.

Though he has his own company, it was on behalf of a thrusting new organisation called Prisma Sport and Media that Becker approached the chairmen of the four Grand Slams at Wimbledon in June with a proposal for a slimline men's circuit designed to blow the ATP Tour out of the water.

The startled foursome consulted with the ITF before deciding to continue to give their backing to the ATP Tour, which possibly was as much of a surprise as a relief to the ATP chief executive, Mark Miles. But the clear indication that Prisma is not about to go away came with the announcement six weeks ago that Wimbledon have awarded the German-owned company exclusive European TV rights at Wimbledon for the next three years, to sit alongside the contracts they had already secured for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups.

Change must come, and come soon, in the administration and presentation of tennis but it looks at the moment as if Becker's startling proposal suffered because it was offered prematurely and also because word of what he was up to leaked out. "The early revelation of Boris's plans at Wimbledon fired the opposition up," said Robert Lubenoff, Becker's biographer and a tennis PR executive. "If his idea to build a complete new tour had been successful it would have amounted to a revolution. Now it is more cosmetic.

"Boris is still negotiating on this one, but quietly. He doesn't want to go public with any more about it just yet. But remember this. Boris was always a great five-set player and to him it never mattered if he lost the first two sets. That's the way he is looking at this business."

With the backing of the ITF and the Grand Slams publicly declared, the ATP Tour set about circling their wagons. Declaring he was in favour of "progressive evolution rather than revolution", Miles outlined at the end of November plans for a streamlined, better financed circuit.

On a crowded Hanover platform with Miles were the people who run the Super Nines, the tournaments second only to the Grand Slams. The ATP Tour and Super Nines' joint venture has produced a contract option for merchandising and TV rights with the companies Octagon and ISL, who have to come up with a licensee by the end of January, which is where Becker and Prisma still reckon they are at the races.

Keen to see the awarding of ranking points and a better placing in the calendar for its Davis Cup and Grand Slam Cup competitions, the ITF president, Brian Tobin, whose second four-year term of office expires this year, wants unity in the sport to be his legacy.

To Tobin a cessation of hostilities between sets of initials which mean nothing to the public is of paramount importance, ahead of attempts to "modernise" the game. The ITF has tiptoed towards this particular hot potato in the form of a proposal to abolish the service "let" but backed off when angry hooting ensued.

There are other similar suggestions being floated, mainly by those who would love to see tennis matches corseted into TV schedules, such as the abandonment of the "ad" in scoring, an earlier tiebreak or even shorter sets. Anything to fit the match into a 50-minute slot.

As they consider this and much more besides, those who constitute tennis officialdom are acutely aware of presences at their shoulders. Bernie Ecclestone, the head man of Formula One who told Ion Tiriac after his first visit to Wimbledon that he could transform that tournament's profits overnight, is interested in getting involved. As is that German redhead, Boris Becker.