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Jun 23rd, 2003, 07:00 PM
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Prize Money Monopolizes Wimbledon Chatter
By CHRISTOPHER CLAREY


ONDON, June 22 - From the lofty vantage point of the players' restaurant, all looked right with the tennis world today on the eve of Wimbledon. With the ivy-covered water tower for a backdrop, men in green shirts and green shorts mowed the outside courts as a steady flow of players meandered along the flower-lined pathways on their way to and from practice.

It was a peaceful, reassuring scene, but to discover the true state of tennis, all one had to do was stop the tallest of those players and ask about the intermittently contentious negotiations between representatives of the four Grand Slam tournaments and the workaday men's tour, the ATP.

"Somehow, some way, there are going to need to be some olive branches extended from both sides," said Todd Martin, the 6-foot-6-inch president of the ATP player council.

The issue, a familiar one to all modern sports fans, is money. The Grand Slam events are generating plenty of it; the ATP is struggling to do the same.

Prize money on the regular tour decreased for the first time in its history this season. The ATP's initial attempt to secure a large pay raise was dismissed during the French Open by the Grand Slam Committee, which deemed its request for about $50 million in increased compensation and promotional money for the game to be outrageous.

The Grand Slam events pay about $50 million in total prize money each year to the players. Any increase in the men's pay would have to be matched by an increase in women's pay, which means the ATP proposal would have required the Grand Slam events to come close to tripling player compensation.

Since then, there have been discussions between the parties, as well as an announcement by the United States Open that it was increasing prize money by 6.2 percent this year, a move that was viewed as an encouraging gesture by Mark Miles, the ATP's chief executive. But the players still want considerably more, and at a meeting on Saturday night at Wimbledon that attracted more than 100 players, including Andre Agassi, ATP leaders made it clear that if negotiations broke down, they would recommend that alternative events be created to compete with the Grand Slam tournaments.

"Right now we're very confident that conversations will continue to go in a productive manner," Martin said. "In my opinion, I don't think we'll ever need the alternatives for the players. If we do, we're making plans for that."

The players could take action against the Grand Slam events next year, although probably not in January at the Australian Open, which remains the weakest of the four major events economically and which allocates by far the biggest chunk of its revenue to player compensation: about 25 percent.

The French Open, Wimbledon and the United States Open have much larger purses - a record $17 million for this year's United States Open and $15.4 million for Wimbledon - but those figures represent only about 10 percent of their revenue.

Regular men's tour events allocate about 30 percent of their revenue to prize money, and the ATP's request for $50 million more was based on the belief that the Grand Slam events should do the same, bringing them closer to the revenue-sharing approach of major North American sports leagues like the National Basketball Association.

"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," the seven-time Wimbledon champion Pete Sampras said in an interview last month. "It's fair to ask for a little more."

While the men take the risk of looking greedy in a recession, the women's players are, for now, more interested in the fight for equal prize money at Wimbledon and the French Open. Nonetheless, they would benefit from whatever the men extract.

"The WTA players don't have exactly the same agenda as the ATP," said Larry Scott, who left the ATP in April to become the WTA's new chief executive. "But they are very committed to the fact that the Grand Slams should play a bigger role in terms of supporting the growth of the circuit."

Grand Slam officials argue that tennis players are independent contractors, not employees like N.B.A. players. The tennis officials also argue that their events are nonprofit, pumping their extra revenue after operating costs into infrastructure improvements, tennis development programs and their own countries' tennis federations.

"You're not comparing apples to apples," said Arlen Kantarian, the United States Open's chief executive for professional tennis.

Kantarian said the best comparison for tennis was golf. "The four majors in golf provide roughly 13 percent of the total prize money, and that's just for the men's and women's U.S. tours," he said. "The four Grand Slams in tennis provide 38 percent of all prize money, and that's worldwide."

The players will certainly settle for less than a $50 million increase. The question is how much less, and whether they have the solidarity to make a unified stand. "I've never seen players focused on this like they are now," said Miles, who emphasized that the negotiations are not just about money but about improving the marketing, structure and calendar of the sport.

Still, despite the two-year contract extension Miles received this year, there is dissatisfaction among the players about ATP management, which was why another players' group, the International Men's Tennis Association, was formed earlier this year. It has received support from more than 50 players, including the defending Wimbledon champion, Lleyton Hewitt. For now, the new group is content to act as an internal watchdog, but its representatives, led by the veteran player Wayne Ferreira, also met with the Grand Slam leaders in Paris.

"I found his proposals extremely interesting," Christian Bimes, the French tennis federation president, said.

Bimes was dismissive of the ATP after the French Open, saying it should be a players' union only and not involve itself in running the game worldwide or negotiating television or marketing deals. Such comments raised hackles at the ATP, and Martin said he and other player representatives sent Bimes a letter of protest. More meetings are scheduled at Wimbledon, along with the usual two weeks of tennis.