Spoilt or inadequately rewarded?

This fight for the soul of men's tennis, between the ATP and the often intractable Grand Slams, is an old one. No one doubts the need for grass roots development, but in a time when tennis' popularity is under threat, a players' mutiny will more than bruise the game.

ROHIT BRIJNATH

Pete Sampras at Wimbledon. The American ace wants more money for the players at the Grand Slam events, because, as he says, people come only to watch the players. The Grand Slam authorities, however, hold the view that "as much as the players make us, we make them."-Pic. AL BELLO/GETTY IMAGES

SOME sounds we never want to hear, they grate on the nerves like fingernails down a blackboard, irritate the senses and challenge our intelligence.

For instance, blank-faced drug cheats pleading innocence and a conspiracy, bombastic sports administrators promising the world, and players meeting defeat with a high-pitched whine (the best one ever is the African tennis player who said "he lost because his opponent had a flatulence problem").

And, yes, millionaires crying poverty. Somehow this whimpering of sports stars picketing for more money, these free-hotel-staying, courtesy-car-driven, headline-grabbing heroes whining about inadequate pay cheques, sticks firmly in the throat.

In case you haven't been reading, or listening (lucky you), tennis' hard-luck brigade, who get �8630 for LOSING in Wimbledon's first round, have been threatening a boycott of the Grand Slams next year because of low pay. Poor fellows is not a phrase that comes readily to mind.

But gut reactions are predictable, too, and simple logic (i.e. they get paid enough anyway) does not suffice as an adequate solution.

Being critical of the earning power of sports stars is too easy. Yes, there is a certain vulgarity to the numbers, and salaries have lost touch with the real world, but unlike the real world their careers are abbreviated. After 10 years, at best, the door to the only employment they know is slammed shut.

It is easy, too, to subscribe to the convenient view, one held in India about cricketers, that riches equal complacency. Shooting commercials does not necessarily correspond to poor scores (i.e. instead of modelling they should be at the nets), and it is a theory mocked by Tendulkar's performances (no one earns more or scores more runs).

Picking sides, as with tennis, is not as obvious as it seems. Take a look:

The ATP, that runs the men's tour but not the Grand Slam tournaments, distributes approximately 30-40 per cent of its revenue at a tournament as prize money. However, at the Grand Slams, the equation is less generous. While the Australian Open offers close to 25%, the other three — French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open — offer prize money that is reportedly about 10 per cent of the enormous revenues they earn.

The ATP finds this unfair and has asked for a greater percentage of revenues; the Grand Slams have said the money is ploughed back into infrastructure and grassroots tennis (for example, Wimbledon's surplus last year of $64.27 million went to the British Lawn Tennis Association).

The ATP, while not using the word, is flirting with a boycott. The Grand Slams have replied that is disappointing.

Each one's argument is compelling.

On the face of it, players attract as much sympathy as Australian cricketers complaining about designer pitches abroad. Wimbledon this year has hiked its prize money by 9.5% for a total of �9.37 million. The Wimbledon winner this year will earn �575,000 (in 1968, it was �2000).

That said, the revenue at the Slams has multiplied exponentially, and as Pete Sampras recently said: "It's not like we want to be tennis players complaining about money but the players are the show, they are why people are coming and why the U.S. Open gets millions from CBS (TV network). It's fair to ask for a little more."

The players have a further bargaining tool: revenue sharing in other sports is more equitable. Moreover, in comparison to other sports they are lesser paid. In Forbes' annual list of the top sports earners, you will find boxers, formula one drivers, basketball players and golfers leading the charge. Tennis brings up the rear, if at all.

In a world, where David Beckham, a contracted earner whose salary is not determined whether he wins or loses, reputedly is to earn $90,000 a week, tennis appears like a poor cousin (i.e. Hewitt, first round Wimbledon loser, earned one-tenth of Beckham this fortnight).

Even in pure prize money terms, golfers sneer at their racket-wielding bretheren. Last year, the No. 1 player in tennis earned $4,619,386, the No. 50 player $406,768, the No. 75 player $270,157 and the No. 100 player $215,637. In golf, the corresponding figures last year were $7,392,188 for the No. 1, $1,365,707 for the No. 50, $1,057,824 for the No. 75 and $859,930 for the No. 100. Sampras' insistence that players are the primary ingredient is in one sense hard to dispute. Tournaments are but theatres for the sporting performing arts, and the absence of top players robs an event of prestige and value. The players do the hard work and deserve fair compensation.

But, at the same time, the Grand Slams can be supremely arrogant, whose philosophy reads: as much as the players make us, we make them. They believe players arrive at their gates for the experience, the glory, the honour, and not for base monetary rewards; this is history, they might say, which cannot be measured in mere dollars and cents.

It is a grandiose posture, and it misses an obvious point. Inadequate pay is not an issue that affects the elite. Men like Hewitt do not play for cheques but trophies, and their economy is based on buying one Ferrari or two. But it affects the lesser players, who have little opportunity to taste Wimbledon's offering of prestige. Honour does not pay their bills.

For players who scrounge from their parents to pay coaches, live in shared accommodation during tournaments, and view a win as bread on the table and air fare to the next event, the Grand Slams' so-called stinginess is a factor. For them life is a struggle, and look no further than Leander Paes' father, Vece, who spent nights literally sweating till dawn in the early years wondering where money for his next tournament would come from.

But, boycotts are hard to enforce, and the idea of players, who feel physical pain when they have to think of anyone else but themselves, taking part in a charity exhibition (as has been proposed) at the same time as Wimbledon next year has a terrific irony to it.

Furthermore, who will join this boycott? Will Agassi whose time at Grand Slams is running out forfeit a major? Which promoter will dare defy the Slams? Will centre court play to an empty crowd if the top 80 are missing? Somehow you doubt it, for the public has little time for the spoilt (whatever their arguments).

Does anyone care, or remember any more, that the 1973 Wimbledon champion, Jan Kodes, was a boycott champion (for that matter has it truly devalued the gold medals won in Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984, both boycott Olympics.) The games, have a habit, of carrying on.

One might say, too, that the players' argument that they are the show has an inherent flaw. After all, the men's tour is a sort of a ragged act, predictable in its plot, absent of leading men of quality, and peopled by bit-part actors who constantly fluff their lines. We may well ask, `We are going to play them more for THIS show?'

This fight for the soul of men's tennis, between the ATP and the often intractable Grand Slams, is an old one. No one doubts the need for grass roots development, but in a time when tennis' popularity is under threat, a players' mutiny will more than bruise the game.

The Grand Slams hold the advantage, but also the solution.