Tennis: Richest event needs the bonus of Agassi

Ronald Atkin says the Munich fest is recovering from a hangover
THE COMPAQ Grand Slam Cup will this week clock up the 10th anniversary of its dollar-laden existence, though the hand that lights the candles is a little shaky and the flames may sputter a little. The history of the Munich event is troubled; assailed from the start for its over-the- top prize money, the richest in the sport, and too often for its own good treated with disdain by the big names it sought to woo.

Its place in an overcrowded calendar has also been a rich source of dispute. For seven years, when it was staged in early December - a popular time with spectators - the players moaned (while pocketing the dollars) that it intruded on their brief close season. Since 1997 the tournament has coincided with Germany's booziest bash, Oktoberfest, and attendances suffered, while the players complained again, this time that it followed immediately after Davis Cup commitments, frequently in parts of the world remote from Munich. Next year a better slot has been agreed in mid-October, but whether the sponsors plan to underwrite it much longer is debatable.

For the moment, the men's top prize of pounds 900,000 and the women's of pounds 520,000 is on offer, plus the bonus (or, as cynics insist, attendance bribes) of pounds 320,000 for a male Grand Slam champion and pounds 240,000 for a woman. No wonder Andre Agassi, even with his cash mountain, has opted to attend. As French and US Open champion he is in line for two bonuses, while Yevgeny Kafelnikov will jet back from this weekend's Davis Cup duty in Brisbane to be on hand for the extra payment he is entitled to as Australian Open winner.

The Wimbledon champion, Pete Sampras, the only player to have won two Grand Slam Cups, is one of the four male qualifiers to have turned down the invitation. Sampras, Pat Rafter and Todd Martin are all nursing injuries and Tim Henman has opted to pursue lesser prize money in Toulouse this week because his world ranking is in need of the points not available at the Munich event.

However, Britain will be represented by Greg Rusedski, who squeezed into last place in the 12-man field after having originally finished 16th in the qualifying race. In his only other Munich appearance, in 1997, Rusedski got to the semi-finals, losing to Sampras, and on the fast indoor carpet of the Olympiahalle Greg and his monster serve can again do well, though he faces a tough opener against the Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten, who is playing well on all surfaces. If he wins that one Rusedski meets one of the four seeds given a first-round bye, Kafelnikov, an opponent he defeated in three sets two years ago.

The women, belatedly offered admission last year, have produced an attractive entry. It lacks only Monica Seles, who has not played in Germany since her stabbing there six years ago, and Steffi Graf, alas retired. Last year's inaugural women's winner, Venus Williams, is back, this time in harness with sister Serena, who won the US Open so robustly earlier this month. Diplomatically, they are in opposite sides of the draw, something which might well have prevented their father and coach, the idiosyncratic Richard, from pulling one of them out, as he has done in other tournaments. Of the women's Grand Slam champions, only Graf (French Open) is absent, and Martina Hingis is the official favourite.

So she was a year ago, too, until we saw the first indications that the Swiss miss might not be all sugar and spice. In a fiercely contested semi- final with her compatriot Patty Schnyder, who had never beaten her, Hingis found her composure ebbing as the match went into a tight third set. Her decision to withdraw at 5-5, complaining of the onset of cramp, was strange to say the least, especially with a first prize of pounds 530,000 on offer.

But it seemed more important to Hingis to claim she was still technically unbeaten against Schnyder, while that top prize went to Venus Williams for winning three matches. It was more than her sister has just collected for winning the US Open.

The draw: Men: D Hrbaty v T Haas (winner to play A Agassi); F Meligeni v N Lapentti (winner to play T Enqvist); V Spadea v R Krajicek (winner to play A Medvedev); G Kuerten v G Rusedski (winner to play Y Kafelnikov). Women: M Hingis v A Mauresmo; V Williams v B Schett; A Sanchez-Vicario v S Williams; M Pierce v L Davenport.