Feet of Clay
True to form, the top men crumbled in Paris
Is the men's tour trying to commit suicide? Players have spent most of the spring inventing ways to turn off the public, and when the tour descended on Paris last week for the French Open, it sank to new depths.
It's bad enough that the men's two standard-bearers and the tournament's top seeds, No. 1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov and No. 2 Pete Sampras, drifted aimlessly into Roland Garros and then floated out in the second round looking haggard and half awake. Worse than draining the draw of two desperately needed marquee names, their pathetic performances reinforced the popular notion that some men have lost interest in their own game. Which prompts the ugly question: If they don't care, why should we?
Just six weeks ago, in the appropriately effete enclave of Monte Carlo, Kafelnikov celebrated his elevation to No. 1—despite having lost six straight first-round matches—by declaring, "I don't really care how I play in Hamburg, Rome, whatever." A day later former No. 1 Marcelo R�os, who has amassed almost $7 million in tournament winnings, called the ATP tour "pretty boring. There's nothing to do. They don't do anything to make it fun." At the next tour stop, in Prague, the promoter refused to pay Kafelnikov and Goran Ivanisevic their hefty guarantees because he suspected both of having tanked their first-round matches.
"Those guys play 30 weeks a year, get paid 200 grand just to show up, and they don't give a s—- in the first round," says 1998 U.S. Open women's champ Lindsay Davenport. "That happens way too much. Half the weeks they don't even care."
Such a perception, naturally, has officials at the ATP tour in a panic. Mark Miles, the tour's chief executive officer, met with Kafelnikov in Rome in mid-May to tell him to stop bad-mouthing the tour, while another ATP official met with R�os. Tour executives then spent the first week in Paris saying that, in the words of ATP chief operating officer Larry Scott, "the kind of comments Kafelnikov made will not be put up with." The penalty for such comments could be a fine of as much as $25,000 and/or a one-year suspension. "If a player says it," Scott says, "that's what will happen."
Believe it when it happens. The ATP has never suspended a player for self-immolating remarks, but, Scott says, "the stakes are higher now." The heightened interest in the women's game threatens to overshadow the men's tour in the U.S.; for eight of the last nine Grand Slam events, TV ratings have been higher for the women's final than for the men's, and at Wimbledon this year HBO plans to devote 70% of its coverage to the women. Moreover, ATP execs are eager to justify the 10-year, $1.2 billion marketing and TV deal that the Swiss broadcast giant ISL Worldwide recently gave the tour.
The best hope for the men is that their game may have hit rock bottom and can only go up. One improvement may come from a new ranking system that will go into effect in 2000 and be more reflective of recent performance. Another helpful change is a rule that requires participation by all qualified players in the Super Nine and Grand Slam events.
Ultimately, though, the solution lies not in fines and TV contracts but in the players. That was evident last week when 53rd-ranked Australian firebrand Andrew Ilie won his second-round match at Roland Garros in five emotional, raucous, delightful sets and tore off his shirt on the court to celebrate. "Every good result is just a joy for me," Ilie said after his victory over Mart�n Rodr�guez. "I don't think it's boring. It's boring when you lose. It doesn't get boring when you win."
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