'I think tennis is suffering because nobody really knows what the structure of the proffessional game is. The public sees so many tournament going on, with the same players in WCT (World Championship Tennis) events one week, Grand Prix events another week, 'special events' the next. It is absolutely confusing I think we have got to have one major tournament per week, like golf. That way the average person can understand what is going on. That's what we're aiming for."
Mike Davis, Executives director, WCT
The plan for restructing men's professional tennis that was ratified in Paris this week seeks to create a circuit on which there will be one readily identifiable major tournament most weeks, instead of several tournaments that the top players split between them.
That was the intention of the Men's International Professional Tennis Council in approving a long-debated plan to consolidate the rival WCT and Grand Prix circuits into a single, two-tiered competition starting next year.
However, there are potential pitfalls that could prevent the ambitious plan from achieving its objective of bringing order to the often chaotic world of pro tennis.
One provision in the plan, unless modified, is likely to discourage top players from embracing the "Super Grand Prix" series that is the backbone of the new structure, and almost inevitably would touch off a new war for player talent between the Grand Prix and World Team Tennis.
This is the heretofore unpublicized stipulation that, in order to share in the Grand Prix bonus pool of about $2 million, a player must compete in a minimum of 24 tournaments.
The plan approved by the pro council - the tripartite board made up of representatives of the International Lawn Tennis Federation (ILTF), players and tournaments - calls for the Grand Prix to be divided to major and minor tours, as follows:
The upper tier, as yet unnamed but tentatively referred to as the "Super Grand Prix," would include 28 major tournaments around the world, each with at least $175,000 in prize money and 32 men in the draw, plus the traditional "Grand Slam" events - the Australian, French and U.S. opens and Wimbledon. Collectively, these will occupy 35 weeks on the international calender.
The second tier would include an as yet undertermined number of tournaments in the $50,000 to $75,000 prize-money range, played over 43 weeks. These would be primarily for players ranked beneath those in "Super Grand Prix" events, but there would be provisions for upward mobility. No more than two of these would be scheduled the same week as a "Super Grand Prix" tournament.
Non-Grand Prix events, including Davis Cup and other competitions, challenge matches, TV tournaments exhibitions and the 17 weeks, scattered througout the year, when no "Super Grand Prix" tournaments are scheduled.
World Championship Tennis would promote eight of the "Super Grand Prix" events in various citits. These would countful of the top players, would be approved for the other "special events" involving a hand-toward the Grand Prix and also toward qualification for the WCT Singles Final at Dallas and the WCT Doubles Final at Kansas City, which would be "special events."
Total prize money available in WCT and Grand Prix events would increase from about $7 million this year to approximately $10 million in 1978.
It is considered likely that a third tier of "satellite tournaments" in the $25,000 to $50,000 prize money range would be added in 1979 if not next year.
Also, the final playoffs for the top finishers in the Grand Prix, heretofore called the Masters, probably would be renamed and moved from December to January to maximize television exposure in the U.S.
"The basic concept was to produce a formula that would allow the average person anywhere in the world to pick up his newspaper and read about one major tournament instead of six, half of which were in fact just exhibitions," David Gray, general secretary of the ILTF, said here today.
However, the proviso that a player must compete in 24 tournaments, at least four of them in the lower tier, in order to qualify for Grand Prix bonus money, is seen by many as the Achilles heel of the plan.
A number of top players, inculding Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg, the current No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world, have balked at any competition that requires them to commit themselves to so many tournaments.
Moreover, there is no guarantee that promoters of the rich "special events" that have proliferated the last two years, threatening tournament tennis by skimming of the top players competing any given week, will restrict their activity to the specified 17 weeks.
And while it is theoretically possible for a player to enter 24 Grand Prix events and still play in the May-through-August World Tennis league - a provision insisted upon by antitrust lawyers who reviewed the new plan - it is virtually impossible from a practical standpoint.
"I'd say it's obvious that the 24-tournament minimum is aimed at hurting us," a WTT spokesman said today. "But we've invested $16 million in this game and we're not going to walk away from it. The best thing for all would be for the pro council to include WTT in the plan, but we'll fight if we have to."
The question that remains to be answered is whether the majority of leading players will enter the "Super Grand Prix," foresaking WTT and the special events, or vice versa.
It seems likely that players such as Connors, Borg and Ilie Nastase will play a certain number of "Super Grand Prix" events, as they fit into their schedule, without commiting to a minimum number or attempting to qualify for the bonus pool.
They would then be free to enrich "themselves in a variety of tournament and "special events," and the tennis scene would remain as muddled as it is now.
Bud Stanner of International Management Group, which represents Borg, Nastase and several other players said he was "shocked" to learn of the 24-tournament requirement. "That is suicidal for the plan. It's just not going to fly," he said.
Philippe Chatrier, president of the French Lawn Tennis Federation and a member of the pro council, said today, "It really boils down to two philosophies: the 'open game,' where huge prize money is there but players have to go out and earn it, versus the 'contract game,' were the money is quaranteed to players whether they win or lose, like show-business talent teams."
"I consider the contract game the cancer of pro tennis," Chatrier added. "The real champions will play in the Grand Prix, because that is the noble thing to do."
But if tennis pros could be counted upon to choose the noble course over a quick 25 or 50-grand, there would be no chaos and a restructuring of the pro game would not be necessary.