Players lose sight of greater good in new battle

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The Independent Online

As Roger Federer played his way to Wimbledon glory during the past fortnight, the suits of international tennis were locked in an ongoing tournament of their own, an event without a referee, without umpires and line judges, in which gamesmanship rules.

The "Internecine Open" threatens to do more harm to the sport than Federer's consummate skills have done good. Indeed, before the protagonists play another point, heavy with top-spin, they should be taken to a room illuminated by video footage of Federer's master class on the lawns and reminded that this is what the game they are supposed to be running is all about.

Instead there is the spectre of a Grand Slam boycott in the form of alternative events for charity to be held during he same weeks of the major championships. Charity, we are told, begins at home. The warring factions should put their own houses in order before the public, who owe nothing to tennis and have myriad alternatives, tire of the bickering on millionaires row and switch off.

On the one side are the Grand Slam chairmen, patricians of the world's four major championships, Wimbledon, the United States Open, the French Open and the Australian Open. On the other side are representatives of the men's tour, the acquisitive Association of Tennis Professionals.

The gist of the problem is that the ATP has been strapped for cash for two years since the collapse of ISL, the sports marketing company that had agreed a 10-year deal with the ATP worth $1.2b (£715m). But instead of asking the Grand Slams for financial help, the ATP demanded what they considered to be theirs by right, arguing that the major championships would be nothing without their players and forgetting that the players would be diminished without the Grand Slams.

Telling the not-for-profit Grand Slam Committee that they must divert a reported combined total of £30m from the surplus of their championships to the ATP instead of ploughing it into grass roots development was not the most diplomatic of moves.

That accepted, the Grand Slam Committee would be well advised to offer something more practical than to complain that the publicity surrounding the ATP's militancy had caused damage to the sport and its players. That much is self-evident. The fact remains that the men's tour, and also the women's WTA circuit, which is more closely aligned with the Grand Slams, need a paternal helping hand from time to time, even though they sometimes bite it.

As well as increased prize money, the ATP wants contributions to a pension fund, medical benefits, a drug-testing programme and, ironically, activity in promoting the sport.

Since your correspondent switched to tennis after many years spent covering football, the sport that inspired the phrase political football, it has been fascinating to observe how the various tennis constituencies have tried to maim, if not kill, their golden goose.

There is no doubt that the ATP had a cause in 1973, when the hard-core membership boycotted Wimbledon in protest at the Yugoslavian Tennis Federation's decision, supported by the International Tennis Federation, to ban Niki Pilic from the Davis Cup.

Open tennis, launched in 1968, allowing professionals and amateurs to compete together for the first time, was in its infancy, and a power struggle between the ATP and International Tennis Federation was the catalyst of the Pilic dispute.

The late Philippe Chatrier, a writer who became president of the French Tennis Federation and also the ITF, was a bonding force in healing the rift, at least temporarily, out of which grew the Men's International Tennis Council, in which the ITF had an important input.

By the late 1980s, the ATP decided that the ITF should mind its own business, which the ATP considered to be the Davis Cup and grass-roots tennis, and no longer have a say in the running of the professional tour. The ATP even held a strike meeting of the millionaires outside the gates of Flushing Meadows during the US Open.

"We're taking control of our own destiny," was the rallying cry of the ATP Tour after splitting from the tennis establishment in 1990. "It's not easy to rebuild Rome," retorted Marshall Happer, president of the now defunct Men's International Tennis Council. The ATP appears to have lost control on the road to destiny, and Rome remains what it is, not what it was.

As Federer's splendid play at Wimbledon was capturing the imagination of discerning spectators, Tim Henman and Andre Agassi indicated that many things in the game needed to be addressed. Both men attended the ATP's pre-tournament meeting, during which the players were asked to sign a commitment to participate in alternative tournaments, but neither man wanted to elaborate during the Championships. As Agassi put it: "I have too much respect for Wimbledon to discuss these matters in their back yard."

Federer, asked for his opinion early in the year, when the dispute was fermenting, said he preferred to let the more experience players comment on the matter. He added, smiling, "I'm Swiss, you know. We don't talk about money."