Tennis: Car, jet and house to Agassi

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The Independent Online
ANDRE AGASSI has agreed to prepare for the defence of his Wimbledon title by playing in a tournament in Germany the week before. The American is guaranteed appearance money and is to be accommodated at a country house and provided with a court for private practice and a Ferrari to drive during his stay. In addition, a jet aircraft will be made available should he wish to travel to London to tune his game - every day if necessary.

This suggests that Gerhard Weber, the promoter of the new grass-court event in Halle in June, is acquiring Ion Tiriac's knack for making things happen; an example of Tiriac's enterprise being the dollars 2.25m ( pounds 1.6m) Eurocard Open, the richest stop on the ATP Tour, which is taking place here.

Tiriac's decision to almost triple his prize-money was the result of impatience with the ATP Tour, who did not grant his tournament Super Series status. Weber's dollars 350,000 ( pounds 254,000) event was born of the frustration of not being able to book a local court for himself at a time other than 6am.

Weber, a couturier, is a recreational player who concluded that if the courts were so busy he had best build his own indoor tennis centre. This is what he did in the woodlands town of Halle (pop. 18,000) in Westfalen, 17 years ago.

Shortly afterwards, a friend asked if his son could use the centre for training. This triggered in Weber's mind the notion of providing outdoor courts as well. The snag was that a local farmer would sell his land only if Weber purchased the entire property and relocated him. The farmer now resides in a renovated castle and ploughs the surrounding fields.

Weber's Halle Tennis Club attracted enough good players to form a team, and last year they narrowly missed qualifying for the Bundesliga. The club came to the attention of the ATP Tour by successfully organising a dollars 50,000 ( pounds 36,000) challenger tournament on clay courts.

When Weber was offered the opportunity to stage an event the week before Wimbledon, he decided it would be played on grass and secured the services of Jim Thorn, the former Wimbledon groundsman. The tournament was already a sell-out before the completion of the centre-court stadium, which holds 7,000 spectators. What began as a tennis centre is fast growing into a pounds 20m sports complex, with outdoor courts, both grass and clay, a golf course, a medical centre and a hotel.

In order to justify the tournament's slogan, 'Wimbledon starts in Westfalen', Weber had to attract big-name players. The signing of Agassi is a major coup. Last year, Agassi returned to Las Vegas after the French Open and practised on an improvised grass court created on a friend's golf course, arriving at Wimbledon only 48 hours before the start.

Aside from the cash incentive, catering for Agassi's tastes probably helped lure him to Germany. 'Unfortunately, there is no McDonald's in Halle,' Robert Lubenoff, the tournament's media director, said. Not yet.

But for the explosion Boris Becker ignited by winning the Wimbledon title in 1985, there would be little scope for the Halle event or the Stuttgart extravaganza. The 25-year-old Becker's exploits continue to fascinate, the current topic being a controversy concerning his dealings with the German Tennis Federation over Davis Cup selection.

It has now been confirmed that Becker will not play in the opening round against Russia in Moscow next month. Michael Stich, with whom Becker won the Olympic gold medal for doubles in Barcelona, had insisted that if Becker missed the first tie he should not be considered for the remainder of the year, and the Federation has concurred.

'We're now looking for the best team, and I would like to play doubles with Charlie Steeb,' Stich said after winning his opening match here yesterday against one of his Russian rivals, Andrei Cherkasov, 7-5,

6-3. 'I'm still talking to Boris,' he added. 'We say hello. Our relationship is not over, but one thing is clear, he's not playing Davis Cup.'

Results, Sport in Short, page 29

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