Clouds gather over Graf’s favourite playground
BERLIN: It is springtime in Berlin, the sun is out and the German Open tennis tournament is on, maybe for the last time.
The fourth oldest tournament in the world for women and the favourite event of Steffi Graf, who won it nine times, might be scrapped from next year. Once a symbol of the wealth of German tennis, the Berlin claycourt show is not even live on a national television channel this year and its main sponsor is threatening to pull out. Without a deal with a broadcaster for next year, tournament director Eberhard Wensky, who has been running the event created in 1896 since it moved from Hamburg to Berlin in 1979, will find it hard to save it. “Without the presence of a free television channel, it will be difficult to keep one of the most prestigious women’s tournaments in Germany,” he said.
The tennis boom generated in the country by Boris Becker and Graf has not survived their retirements and Germany has already lost several high-profile tournaments, notably the Stuttgart Masters Series and the men’s year-end championships which were staged in Hanover for years and now change venue every year. The German Tennis Federation (DTB), which turned 100 last year with little to celebrate, has lost a valuable source of income as a result and is struggling with severe financial difficulties.
The DTB has also come under criticism from Graf, who said the governing body’s structure and its policy in schooling young talent were two of the reasons for the current crisis.
Ratings dropped: Since not only Becker and Graf but also Michael Stich and Anke Huber have stopped playing competitive tennis, television ratings have dropped significantly and buying the rights for German tournaments is no longer a priority for the public channels. As a consequence, sponsors are also losing interest and prefer to invest money elsewhere.
The main reason there is less tennis on German television is because the country no longer has a truly great player. Neither Tommy Haas nor Nicolas Kiefer has lived up to huge expectations and the enthusiasm for Rainer Schuettler’s surprise run to the Australian Open final last January came as a reminder of how frustrated German tennis fans were getting.
Schuettler has struggled since and the situation in the women’s game is even more critical with no German player in the top 50. The only local to make the main draw of this year’s German Open without needing a wild card or having to qualify was world number 73 Anca Barna, who survived the first round with a 6-4 6-2 win over Spain’s Anabel Medina Garrigues. “I’m feeling more pressure than usual,” said the 25-year-old Barna. “Normally nobody cares about how I play and this is new to me but it’s all right.”
Rescue: Germany are struggling at team level as well, facing battles against relegation from the world group in both the Davis Cup and the Fed Cup. Becker, who has suffered a string of misfortunes since leaving the professional circuit, and Graf, concentrating on her family life with fellow tennis great Andre Agassi, still win more play in the German media for anything they do than any active German player. The two, who won 28 grand slam titles including 10 Wimbledon crowns between them, are now being called to the rescue.
Becker and his Switzerland-based marketing agency BCI have stepped in to save the Hamburg Masters Series, starting next week, from financial collapse, while Graf has promised Wensky she will play an exhibition at the German Open next year in an effort to convince a German broadcaster to show the tournament live. To promote this year’s Hamburg event, Becker has organised exhibition matches on a Davis Cup format featuring himself, Stich and the McEnroe brothers, John and Patrick. “That’s entertainment,” said Becker, who has gone through a multi-million divorce settlement, a dispute with a pregnant lover and a trial for tax evasion since leaving the professional circuit. At least when the present is too depressing, Germany can always look to the past. —Reuters