Tennis: Wimbledon hit by Graf decline

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The Independent Online
THE DECLINE of the German tennis boom created by Boris Becker, Steffi Graf and, to a lesser extent, Michael Stich, which made their nation the financial hub of the sport with regard to television rights, has taken a toll on Wimbledon.

Profits from the 1999 Championships are down by nearly pounds 3m on 1998 denying the All England Club, for the first time in 20 years, the opportunity to announce a record surplus.

Nevertheless, Wimbledon was able to hand pre-tax profits of pounds 30.2m to the Lawn Tennis Association yesterday for the development of the British game.

Although record crowds of 457,069 (an increase of 32,701 on last year) attended the tournament, in spite of rain delays during the second week, reduced television income from Europe, particularly Germany, was symptomatic of a widely-anticipated trend as Becker and Graf came towards the end of their careers. When they were at their height, the level of competition for Wimbledon television rights in Germany was intense and prices inflated accordingly.

Nowadays, as talented but largely unproven young German players, such as Nicolas Kiefer and Tommy Haas, attempt to fill the void left by Becker, the market for televised tennis is distinctly cooler.

Becker, already semi-retired, decided to compete at Wimbledon one last time last summer before bidding farewell to the lawns on which he announced his arrival as the youngest ever men's singles champion as a 17-year-old in 1985. Graf, a seven-times Wimbledon singles champion, surprised everybody by winning the French Open in June, after which she announced it was to be her last tournament in Paris. She played her last match at Wimbledon in the final, losing to Lindsay Davenport. Shortly afterwards Graf announced that her career was over.

The European television market may be in a state of flux, but the All England Club recently completed a new five-year deal with the BBC for domestic rights, enabling British tennis followers to continue to watch and listen to the championships on terrestrial networks.

Digital television will allow for more imaginative coverage of matches, and the All England Club is encouraged by the growing success of its website, which recorded 942m hits this year compared with 233m in 1998.

John Crowther, the LTA's chief executive, greeted Wimbledon's latest injection of cash as "another excellent result for British tennis". He added: "From year to year we must expect fluctuations in the surplus, but our capacity to continue to invest in the game at all levels remains undiminished. Improving access to tennis for everyone, and attracting children in particular, remain our top priorities and we actively continue to develop other vital income streams, such as sponsorship, merchandising and membership."

During the past 12 months, the LTA spent pounds 8.1m on staging events, tournaments and national coaching in support of the nation's top 180 players.

A total of pounds 4.9m was spent on implementing grass-roots development plans introduced in 1995, and a total of pounds 5.5m was allocated to improving existing tennis facilities and building new tournament venues, county centres and regional centres, in the hope of producing the successors to Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski.