SI's Frank Deford reports on last week's decision by the Association of Tennis Professionals ( ATP), a group comprising nearly all the world's top male players, to break away from the Men's Tennis Council—which has run the tour for 18 years—and form its own circuit, to start in 1990:
Until the early 1970s, tennis players conscientiously promoted their sport. After the Ashe-Smith-Newcombe generation moved on, however, men players too often fell to bickering—usually stars against nonstars, over issues such as the division of fees and prize money—and gradually lost their clout in the Byzantine world of international tennis. Now the players are trying to reassert their influence.
This new assertiveness became apparent in early 1987, when former Jimmy Carter presidential aide Hamilton Jordan took over as the ATP's executive director. Jordan felt that the ATP should be an analogue of the powerful PGA, which actually runs the men's pro golf Tour. But there are vast differences between golf and tennis. The PGA Tour is tidy and mostly American and has a 10-month season; tennis is messy and international, and its circuit is never-ending. Golfers are more mature, conservative and respectful of tradition; too many tennis players are puerile, egocentric and unwilling to handle responsibility.
Nevertheless, the ATP moved ahead. In August it warned that it would break away and start a new tour if players weren't given a greater voice in the Men's Tennis Council, a body composed, like Gaul, of three parts: the ATP, the directors of the regular tour events, and the International Tennis Federation (ITF), which oversees the Grand Slam tournaments, the Davis Cup and the Olympics. Each group has three representatives on the nine-member council.
The players felt they deserved more than a one-third say in running their sport. They also wanted changes in the Grand Prix, such as more freedom to choose when and where they play and an eight-week off-season. But when ATP and council representatives met in London last week to discuss these issues, the talks broke down. The ATP announced that it will proceed with its new tour, and said 20 big-name players have signed up to play the tour, including No. 1-ranked Mats Wilander, Boris Becker and Andre Agassi.
The tournament directors are now the ones on the spot, and most will be meeting in Europe and America in the next month to choose between, as Jordan puts it, "the devil they know and the devil they don't." What bedevilment might a new tour bring? At worst, there might be more tournaments and more fragmentation; inexperienced ATP personnel might prove to be incapable administrators; and a vindictive ITF might force top ATP tour players to compete against one another for qualifying spots in Wimbledon and other Grand Slam events.
What good might transpire? The ATP tour could be streamlined and better structured than the Grand Prix, with the best players meeting each other regularly, as they do in women's tennis. In that case, the Grand Prix, which has belatedly said it will reform itself, would have to make good on that promise or be forced to fold its tent.
Let's face it: Men's tennis is a mess. A PGA-style system just might help. Why not give the new devil a chance to put up or shut up?
There have been reports since late in the baseball season that Yankee owner George Steinbrenner will trade star first baseman Don Mattingly if the offer is right. What's right? Last week Cub manager Don Zimmer happened to see Steinbrenner at a social function in Tampa and, as a joke, sent him a note saying that the Cubs would give up five every-day starters—former MVP second baseman Ryne Sandberg, shortstop Shawon Dunston, outfielder Rafael Palmeiro, first baseman Mark Grace and catcher Damon Berryhill—as well as 1984 Cy Young winner Rick Sutcliffe, in exchange for Mattingly. Zimmer says Steinbrenner replied with a note that read, "We'll need one more player."