Tennis: Henman lured by easy money

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WITH ALL the talk concerning the Greens, Chancellor Schroder may eventually get round to wondering what the $6.7m Compaq Grand Slam Cup is about, apart from providing an annual windfall for a small number of ambivalent tennis professionals.

Tim Henman has qualified for a second bite of the cake at the Olympic Hall this week. The British No 1 will make $100,000 (pounds 59,000) the moment he hits a ball, win or lose, against Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman in the opening round this afternoon. On his previous visit, in 1996, Henman won $431,250 for three matches, defeating Michael Stich and MaliVai Washington before losing to Boris Becker in the semi-finals.

Although players are invited to the event on the strength of their results in the world's four major tournaments, the Wimbledon, Australian, French and United States championships, the lure here is money rather than prestige. As Henman said: "My decision was solely that I'd played well in the last two Grand Slams. I've qualified for it. It's a nice cheque whether you win or lose, so why not take it?"

Henman and Bjorkman devoted last weekend to the cause of their respective nations, Henman helping Britain gain promotion to the World Group of the Davis Cup, Bjorkman playing a leading role in Sweden's progress to the final.

In doing so, Henman and Bjorkman underlined the worrying indifference shown by certain other players, notably Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, who declined to play for the United States against Italy in the semi-final in Milwaukee. Sampras, an heroic performer in past matches, said the American public did not care about the Davis Cup. Agassi said he would have played if the match had been held in Las Vegas, where he had organised a charity event.

Agassi accepted a wild card for the Grand Slam Cup, having hinted during the US Open that he would be prepared to fill a void left by the withdrawals of three of the four champions, Sampras, Carlos Moya and Pat Rafter.

"Hopefully, they could cut me a little slack and pretend like I deserve to be there," was Agassi's quote. With only two fourth rounds, a second round and a first round to show for the four majors this season, Agassi patently does not deserve to be here, but the marketplace says otherwise. So, tomorrow evening he plays the Frenchman Cedric Pioline, a former runner- up to Sampras at both Wimbledon and the US Open.

Henman has made it plain that the Grand Slam Cup was not one of his priorities. "I view it as a bonus week," he said. "I'm not going to put a great deal of pressure on myself. I haven't got anything to lose. I've had a very busy schedule. If I win, I get a few added bonuses. If I lose, I can have a few days off."

Asked if his attitude was affected by the big-name absenteeisms, Henman said: "No, not at all. That's their decision. I think it does go to show the date is quite difficult for some of those guys. Trying to qualify for Hannover [the ATP Tour World Championship] and the remaining ATP tournaments are definitely my focal point for the remainder of the year."

Henman's approach to playing Bjorkman (the Swede beat him indoors in Stuttgart last year and at the 1995 Australian Open, Henman winning on grass at Nottingham later the same year) sounded carefree. "I wouldn't say I have too many concerns going into the match, that's for sure," the 24-year-old from Oxford said.

"Yes, he's a great player. He made the quarters of the US Open this year and he's just played well in Davis Cup, so he'll be confident. But I think I'll have a relaxed attitude going into the match, and we'll just see how it goes. I'm not going to spend a great deal of time thinking about that. I'm just going to go there and play, and see how it goes."

The introduction of the eight leading women players is a welcome innovation at the Grand Slam Cup this year. It seems appropriate that today's opening match should be between the two former Wimbledon champions, the Swiss prodigy, Martina Hingis, and Conchita Martinez, of Spain.

The winner of the 12-strong men's event will receive $1.3m, and the women's winner will be paid $800,000. Apart from the prize-money, $2m goes to the development of the sport.

n David Lloyd, the Davis Cup captain, said yesterday that, given a good draw and good fortune, Britain could win the Cup outright next year. However, Lloyd, a realist as well as an optimist, warned: "It is essential that Britain has some good youngsters coming through to support Tim and Greg."