Richest event needs the bonus of Agassi

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The Independent Online

THE COMPAQ Grand Slam Cup will this week clock up the 10th anniversary of its dollar-laden existence, though the hand that lights thecandles 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- topprize money, the richest in the sport, and too often for its own good treated with disdain by the big names it sought to woo.

THE COMPAQ Grand Slam Cup will this week clock up the 10th anniversary of its dollar-laden existence, though the hand that lights thecandles 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- topprize 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 populartime with spectators - the players moaned (while pocketing the dollars) that it intruded on their brief close season. Since 1997 the tournament hascoincided with Germany's booziest bash, Oktoberfest, and attendances suffered, while the players complained again, this time that it followedimmediately after Davis Cup commitments, frequently in parts of the world remote from Munich. Next year a better slot has been agreed inmid-October, but whether the sponsors plan to underwrite it much longer is debatable.

For the moment, the men's top prize of £900,000 and the women's of £520,000 is on offer, plus the bonus (or, as cynics insist,attendance bribes) of £320,000 for a male Grand Slam champion and £240,000 for a woman. No wonder Andre Agassi, even withhis cash mountain, has opted to attend. As French and US Open champion he is in line for two bonuses, while Yevgeny Kafelnikov will jet backfrom 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 turneddown the invitation. Sampras, Pat Rafter and Todd Martin are all nursing injuries and Tim Henman has opted to pursue lesser prize money inToulouse 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 inthe qualifying race. In his only other Munich appearance, in 1997, Rusedski got to the semi-finals, losing to Sampras, and on the fast indoorcarpet 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 hedefeated 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 Germanysince her stabbing there six years ago, and Steffi Graf, alas retired. Last year's inaugural women's winner, Venus Williams, is back, this time inharness with sister Serena, who won the US Open so robustly earlier this month. Diplomatically, they are in opposite sides of the draw, somethingwhich might well have prevented their father and coach, the idiosyncratic Richard, from pulling one of them out, as he has done in othertournaments. 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 £530,000 onoffer.

But it seemed more important to Hingis to claim she was still technically unbeaten against Schnyder, while that top prize went to Venus Williamsfor 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 BSchett; A Sanchez-Vicario v S Williams; M Pierce v L Davenport.

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