Tennis: Points not prizes are the issue

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The Independent Online
OKTOBERFEST ENDED after 6.5m visitors (100,000 more than in 1997) had consumed 1.32m gallons (5m litres) of beer, a four per cent drop on last year. Dollarfest, the $6.7m (pounds 4.2m) Compaq Grand Slam Cup, closed with Marcelo Rios and Venus Williams receiving winners' che-ques for $1.3m and $800,000 respectively. The $375,000 bonus money was reinvested in the tournament after the non-appearance of three Grand Slam champions, Pete Sampras, who was injured, and Pat Rafter and Carlos Moya, who had other commitments.

There was no small beer in Bavaria last week, and when the hangovers subside serious thought will have to be given to the future of the richest tournament in tennis.

Although the weekend's climax to the Grand Slam Cup was blessed with two epic matches featuring Andre Agassi - who hitched a ride on the gravy train with a wild card - a general ambivalence by the players continues to pervade the tournament.

Next year will mark the 10th edition of the event, which was conceived amid political turmoil after the men's professional game split from the International Tennis Federation and organised its own grand prix, the ATP Tour, with an eight-man finale in Germany in November.

The tennis calendar is tight. The Grand Slam Cup was originally held in December as the last event of the year. The players said they needed to rest. The current date not only coincides with the beer festival but is too close to Davis Cup ties. A switch to mid-October appears to be the least of the difficulties.

German tennis, post-Boris Becker, no longer has a captive audience, but continues to be attractive at a social level. Although the Olympic Hall in Munich is a perfect setting, the Grand Slam Cup could be played elsewhere in the world if necessary.

The addition of a women's event this year was an important step forward, although the organisers soon realised that they faced a similar attitude from the women players to the one they have experienced from the men since the Grand Slam Cup's inception in 1990.

A mountain of money might lure the best players to a tournament, but only when world ranking points are at stake are they likely to be there in mind and spirit as well as body. A player's ranking is the key to everything - entry into tour events, sponsorship deals, status - and no points are on offer at the Grand Slam Cup.

Tennis is beset with unforced errors when it should be united in the challenge to raise the sport's potential in a competitive market. If the Grand Slam Cup is to survive, the event must be allowed to award ranking points.

The indoor event is, after all, linked to the four major championships - Wimbledon and the United States, French and Australian Opens - which are abundant in points and prestige.

A streamlined Grand Slam Cup might sit more comfortably with reduced prize money while contributing points towards the race for the men's ATP Tour Championship in Hanover and women's Chase Championships in New York.

"Once we achieve a better date and ranking value for the performances of the players in this tournament, there should be no issue whatsoever about the event," Bill Babcock, the Grand Slam administrator, says.

"We've always said if you're going to give points to the ATP Final, you must give points to this event or give points to neither, but you must be consistent. I think once we add those points, you've got the players feeling differently about the event, and better about the event, because they know they can benefit from it.

"We also know in 2000 there's a whole new ranking system coming into being in the men's game. I think, more than ever, it's important by that time to get the Grand Slam Cup integrated into the system. That's not our fault. We want it to be integrated. It's a political decision, in my view, on the ATP's part, because they control the points.

"As for connecting the Grand Slam Cup to the ATP Tour Championship or connecting it to qualification, that's all possible, and that's all part of a discussion we're busy having."

All sides in the debate should bear in mind that political in-fighting is apt to distract from the crux of the matter. Public interest in the sport is paramount. And the public is not short of options.

n Greg Rusedski begins his title defence of the Swiss Indoor event in Basle today against the inexperienced German, Axel Pretzsch. Rusedski, the world No 14 and seventh seed, defeated Mark Philippoussis last year in the final and appears to be rediscovering his good form after missing much of the summer with an ankle injury. The world No 11, Tim Henman, faces the Australian Jason Stoltenberg, in the first round.