The tanks came rolling into Prague at tennis's Czech Open last week. Top seed Yevgeny Kafelnikov (below, right) ran his losing streak to seven matches by dropping a yawner to Richard Fromberg in the first round (which didn't keep him from being anointed as the world's No. I player on Monday). Then second seed Goran Ivanisevic (left) lost to unknown Markus Hantschk. Both top seeds played listlessly and watched gettable balls go by, and both were jeered by the fans at the Czech Tennis Centre.
The sight of leading players combusting in the early rounds on the ATP tour is becoming as common as a Pete Sampras injury. A No. 1 seed has not won a tour event this year. But Czech Open officials didn't see the losses by Kafelnikov and Ivanisevic as mere upsets. They accused both players of tanking—losing on purpose—and refused to pay their six-figure guarantees. "I don't distinguish between a secretary and a Kafelnikov," said Czech Open official Peter Kovarcik. "No work, no money."
Why tank? One reason is the ranking system on the men's tour. A player's world rank is based solely on his best 14 performances over the past 12 months. A frequent flier like Kafelnikov, who has played 32 events since last May, can afford to lose 18 first-round matches and still ascend to No. 1. Also, ever-bigger appearance fees turn lower-tier events like the Czech Open into glorified exhibitions and blunt the stars' hunger to win. In Prague, for instance, Ivanisevic and Kafelnikov were promised far more in appearance money than the $66,400 that Dominik Hrbaty got for winning the tournament.
"The potential for tanking is there when you give players so much," says Tom Ross, agent for Michael Chang and Todd Martin, "but it goes on less in men's tennis than a lot of people think." Maybe so, but no one talks about tanking in women's tennis. Think it's only a coincidence that the WTA forbids appearance money?