Tennis: Henman's chance as Slam is dumped

Ronald Atkin says Britain's No 1 has the chance of a big pay day in Munich
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NOT FOR the first time this year, the much-restored women's side of professional tennis has come to the rescue of the men's game. The decision to include women at the Compaq Grand Slam Cup, which begins in Munich on Tuesday, turned into a timely one with the collapse of the men's draw.

Entry for Munich is by qualification, based on results at the year's four Grand Slams. Since its inauguration in 1990 the event has featured a 16-man field. This time the best eight women have been included and the men's draw cut to 12, but three of the Grand Slam champions, Pete Sampras (Wimbledon), Patrick Rafter (US Open) and Carlos Moya (French Open) have pulled out, as well as the Roland Garros runner-up, Alex Corretja, and Richard Krajicek, whose knee problems have flared up again.

Sampras has cried off injured, Rafter is unavailable because of Davis Cup duty and Moya has opted to play in Majorca, where he was born. Corretja also prefers Majorca. That by doing so Moya has spurned a minimum of pounds 140,000 says much for the meaningless state of prize funds these days, particularly at the Grand Slam Cup, whose $6.7m is the biggest in the sport.

Perhaps novelty value has something to do with it, but all the leading girls are lined up, with the exception of Monica Seles, who has consistently refused to play in Germany since she was stabbed there in April 1993. In contrast, so desperate for a big name was the men's draw that Andre Agassi has been given a wild card, only the second time such an option has been brought into play. Last year Boris Becker, the 1996 winner, was granted direct entry because he had not collected enough qualifying points. But Becker was the main reason the tournament was sited in Germany in the first place and his manager, Axel Meyer-Wolden, ran the Compaq event until his death last year.

The offer to Agassi hardly falls into the same category. He has twice previously pulled out of the tournament citing injury and on the three occasions when he has turned up has won only one match. On his last appearance, in 1996, Agassi was booed for a lax loss to Mark Woodforde. In the inaugural year Agassi pulled out, asked to be restored to the draw and then pulled out again, incurring a $25,000 fine.

The International Tennis Federation's Bill Babcock, administrator of the Grand Slam Cup, said it was normally preferred not to use the wild card "but this year the tournament needs some help on the men's side". Babcock added: "Agassi is the hottest player of the summer, except for Rafter. The request for a wild card came from him and he is very excited that it has been granted."

The reduced standard of entry should have offered the chance of a big pay day for Britain's Tim Henman but he has been paired in the first round with the Swede Jonas Bjorkman who, at 13 in the world rankings, stands only two behind Henman and who enjoys a reputation of being the best returner in the game. Bjorkman won their only previous indoor clash in Stuttgart last year. Henman beat him at Nottingham on grass in 1995 but lost at the Australian Open the same year.

If he wins, Henman would then play the Australian Mark Philippoussis, the big-serving runner-up at the recent US Open, for a spot in the semi- finals, a place he achieved on his only previous appearance in the event in 1996.

As the sole surviving winner of a Grand Slam, the Australian Open, Petr Korda, will face Agassi in the quarter-finals provided the American gets past his first-round date with Cedric Pioline. Korda, who won the Grand Slam Cup in 1993, could face the 1995 champion, Goran Ivanisevic, in the semi-finals while, if he can come through his first two tests, Henman could come up against Chile's Marcelo Rios for a place in the final.

The opportunity is certainly there for a pick-up of some pounds 850,000 if Henman can introduce the one missing element, consistency, into an otherwise excellent game.

As well as player absences, the Compaq Grand Slam Cup has had difficulty finding a suitable date. For seven years it was held in December, only to attract player complaints that the event intruded on their brief close season. Last year, when it moved to late September, it collided with Germany's big beer bash, Oktoberfest, a spell of fine weather which decimated attendance, and Davis Cup ties. Another date, mid- October, will be introduced in the year 2000 in a bid to keep the players happy as well as richly rewarded.