Wimbledon opens under threat of boycott next year

Plans by players to organise alternatives to Grand Slam events are casting a shadow over the start of the championships today
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Male players have raised the spectre of a Grand Slam boycott next year even before the first ball of this year's Wimbledon Championships is struck in SW19 today. The Association of Tennis Professionals, which runs the men's tour, wants 84 of the top 100 ranked players to commit themselves to alternative charity tournaments instead of playing one, or any, of the four majors

This is the latest threat by the ATP in its demand for up to 30 per cent of the revenue from the world's four Grand Slam championships - Wimbledon, the United States Open, French Open and Australian Open - to help finance the men's tour.

After a meeting of 120 ATP players at the All England Club on Saturday evening, Todd Martin, the president of the ATP Players' Council, said: "Time is of the essence. We need to inspire the Grand Slams to step up and act. Nobody wants alternative events, but if it's necessary and there needs to be action, we need to be prepared to take action."

Mark Miles, the ATP's chief executive, while emphasising that he was committed to continued dialogue with the Grand Slam Committee, said: "If getting started with a new event was required, and if that meant no money - in other words, charity events - then so be it."

The men's game has struggled for the past 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). As well as increased prize-money, the ATP wants contributions to a pension fund, medical benefits, a drug-testing programme and activity in promoting the sport. The Grand Slam chairmen rejected the ATP's proposals as unacceptable after meetings at the French Open.

The chairmen, who are representatives of not-for-profit organisations, explained their policy of 100 per cent reinvestment in tennis. Wimbledon's pre-tax surplus is handed to the Lawn Tennis Association, their partners in The Championships, for the development of British tennis. Last year's surplus was down from £30m to £26m. The £9,373,990 prize-money on offer during the next fortnight is increased by 6.2 per cent overall, with the prize-money for the singles up by 9.5 per cent.

It was thought that the ATP might threaten to organise a tournament in opposition to the US Open at the end of August. Then came news that prize-money at the US Open had been increased by $1m (£596,000). Miles observed: "The increase is nearly twice the amount of the US Open's average increases over the past few years. Many players view this as a constructive preliminary step, and it confirms the importance of our ongoing dialogue with the USTA regarding financial issues and other initiatives to grow the game."

Miles added that he was "very pleased" with Saturday's meeting. "I think the tone of of the meeting was all very constructive," he said. "The first thing was that there was real commitment. There's an understanding that our approach has to have patience, and there are a lot of issues which need to be looked at and worked through, such as the calendar, governance, promotion and marketing.

"The players clearly understand that there is a range of issues, not just the financial ones. They believe, in particular, that the USTA and the All England Club want to deal with these issues. At the same time, we have constituents - a large number of constituents - that want us prepared for other contingencies and have players commit. If we ever go to the position where discussions are hopeless, we'd be ready. Guys are going through the process of making those commitments. But that is the second track. There is overall commitment to the first track of patience and dialogue."

Martin concurred, saying: "Our priority by far is to continue the dialogue that has begun. But we need to be certain that things will have to be addressed promptly. We have the opportunity to move ahead. Initially, the Wimbledon reaction was defensive, in the true sense of the word. They have told us what they do with the money. We are continuing the dialogue to find a consensus with the Grand Slams individually."

Larry Scott, who moved from the ATP 60 days ago to become chief executive of the WTA Tour, is committed to the cause of equal prize-money. "It's early days for me," Scott said, "and the WTA Tour don't have the same agenda necessarily as the ATP. We've had a good dialogue with Wimbledon, and I'm happy it's moving in the right direction."

Wimbledon suffered an ATP boycott in 1973, although prize-money was not behind that dispute, which was rooted in the sport's politics.

Yesterday Serena Williams, the Wimbledon women's singles champion, and Jennifer Capriati helped launch a world-wide WTA Tour brand marketing campaign designed "to capture and convey the strength and tenacity of women's tennis, as well as the grace and femininity it invariably exudes."

As the tournament gets under way today, your correspondent has a dilemma. Having predicted at the start of the year that Tim Henman or Greg Rusedski would win the men's singles title, two nagging memories come to mind.

One is of Tony Waddington, the late manager of Stoke City, becoming so irritated by the club's disc jockey playing a record with the lyric, "Maybe this year, maybe next year, maybe never", that he threw it away. The other is of Goran Ivanisevic, and the number of times I wrote that the big-serving Croat could either win the tournament or lose in the first round. The one year I neglected to mention Ivanisevic was 2001.

Henman and Rusedski are barely nudging their way into the season after injury problems, but both have a game suited to grass. Henman, four times a Wimbledon semi-finalist, has not been able to crank up his serve, chiefly because he does not want to aggravate his troublesome right shoulder. Rusedski also lacks matches, although his displays last week in winning the Nottingham title suggest he is primed for action.

Rusedski is looking forward to renewing his rivalry with Andy Roddick, the young American with whom he shares the world's fastest serve: 149 mph. Should they meet in the second round, the outcome could hold key to the destination of the trophy.

Much depends on whether the courts and balls combine like last year to produce slowish tennis on the world's fastest surface. If so, Andre Agassi will be fancied strongly to win a second Wimbledon title at the age of 33, even though Lleyton Hewitt, the defending champion, is No 1 in the draw, if not the world.

Juan Carlos Ferrero, of Spain, the French Open champion, may also be able to impose his impressive range of groundstrokes on the tournament. Indeed, it is possible that a number of Latin voices will be heard in the closing stages of The Championships after the run of the Argentinian David Nalbandian to the final last year. Fernando Gonzalez, a hit-or-bust Chilean, could be dangerous, and we are all eager to see if the Dutchman Martin Verkerk is as bold here as at the French Open.

Mark Philippoussis is a potential winner, but the player who has all the technical attributes to prevail is Roger Federer, of Switzerland. He will have to overcome his suspect mental strength over the course of a major championship. If he does, he will make a splendid champion.

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