Contrary to popular belief, Ivan Lendl, whom John McEnroe once described as a robot, really does prefer man to machine. Lendl rejects the very computer rankings that consider him the No. 1 player in men's tennis. He trusts instead his own sentient self, which lost last week to Stefan Edberg in the semifinals of the eight-player Nabisco Masters at Madison Square Garden. Lendl's choice for the top player of 1989 is everyone else's, Boris Becker, winner of this year's Wimbledon and U.S. Open crowns and runner-up in the Masters to Edberg, who prevailed on Sunday 4-6, 7-6, 6-3, 6-1. Despite that setback, Becker most emphatically also considers himself to be No. 1.
Lendl and Becker, however, do not agree when it comes to a much more contentious issue, one that promises to have profound ramifications for the future of the game. On the surface it's an old-fashioned labor-management dispute, with roots that go back more than 20 years. The latest subject of discord is the men's tour, which, beginning next year, will be administered by the players themselves through their union, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP). The ATP Tour will replace the Nabisco Grand Prix circuit and culminate in a Masters-style world championship in Frankfurt in November, with $1 million going to the winner.
Members of the International Tennis Federation (ITF), curators of the four Grand Slam events and the Davis Cup, don't much cotton to player power. In a clear slap at the ATP Tour, the ITF recently announced plans for a world championship of its own. Called the Grand Slam Cup, it will feature the eight best performers from the four majors and perhaps the Davis Cup (the particulars of the format have yet to be determined). What's more, it will take place in West Germany (the town has yet to be determined) just three weeks after the ATP Tour World Championship, and the winner will take home a whopping $2 million. Were a player to win all four Grand Slam tournaments, he would collect about half that.
The players' union considers the Grand Slam Cup crass payola, a ploy to cleave the top players from the rank-and-file. The West German Tennis Federation, at the behest of the directors of six German ATP Tour events, has refused to sanction the ITF's event. "Grotesque," is how Gunter Sanders, executive director of the federation, describes the Grand Slam Cup's lucre. "To give $2 million to the winner of a tennis tournament at a time when thousands of East German refugees are looking for jobs and housing is not good for our sport."
The ITF stops just short of admitting as much. "It is true that we are using the means that I often fought against before," the ITF's courtly president, Philippe Chatrier, has said. "But the dollar is king, and we have to accept it."
With the old-guard ITF behaving as if the money-mad '80s aren't ending, and the players under the leadership of that engineer of Jimmy Carter populism, ATP executive director Hamilton Jordan, followers of tennis can only guess what to expect from the sport in the '90s. "The money is almost disgusting," says McEnroe, referring to the Grand Slam Cup. "We are in danger of turning into money whores if we don't turn our backs on things like this, and I might."
To hear tennis's whiniest player whine about making too much money is disorienting, particularly in light of the fact that he has made close to $1 million playing no more than nine exhibitions in the last three months. Nonetheless, Becker, Edberg, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang and Brad Gilbert, each of whom was in the Masters, made similar noises last week. All are concerned about the timing and location of the Grand Slam Cup; they worry that it will undermine the players' ability to attract sponsors and fans to the ATP Tour World Championship. If Becker makes good on his vow not to play the Grand Slam Cup should he qualify, the ITF will be hard-pressed to justify the $6 million purse (the runner-up will take home $1 million and so on down to the alternates, who will get $75,000 apiece even if they never lift a racket).
"If I don't play in my home country, I don't think the hall is going to be full," says Becker. "The ITF just wants to make sure everyone knows who are the chiefs. What they have done is terrible. They're not looking at what is best for the game in five or 10 years."
Lendl is the only elite player to welcome the Grand Slam Cup. He and his bride, Samantha, are expecting their first child in May and will have to make ends meet. "Don't spit at somebody who's trying to give you money," says Lendl, whose career winnings exceed $15 million. "If you think it's too much money for yourself, go and play and give it to charity if you want."
Nor is Lendl troubled by the ATP's darkest fear—that the ITF wants to use the Grand Slam Cup as the base for a rival circuit, which would begin in 1991. He seems to have taken to heart lessons of the free market to which his Czech countrymen will soon be introduced. "I think it would be great for tennis to have two tours competing against one another," he says. "If you ask ATP, they say no, it's not. I hope that one tour will push the other to produce a better tour."