This was supposed to be the year that peace broke out in men's pro tennis. The merger of World Championship Tennis (WCT) and the Colgate Grand Prix was to give us one international circuit readily identifiable as "the major leagues."
There has been considerable progress in that direction, but all is not quiet on the political front. A misunderstanding in Japan has led to some testy accusations, and added evidence that some leading players are too greedy or shortsighted to put the health and order of the tournament game above a few thousand extra dollars in their own pockets.
A four-man, $200,000 exhibition tournament involving Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas and Manuel Orantes, scheduled April 22-23 in Tokyo, poses the first serious challenge to the new Super Grand Prix" structure of 32 major tournaments.
The Japanese event, promoted by a Tokyo-based firm called Step Inc. and sponsored by the Suntory liquor company, is slated the same week as a $175,000 "Super Grand Prex" tournament promoted by WCT in Houston.
One condition of the WCT-Grand Prix consolidation, whereby WCT gave up its competitive circuit and agreed to promote eight of the $175,000-plus "Super Grand Prix" tournaments, was that non-Grand Prix events involving a handful of top players would not be scheduled against the 32 protected "Super" tournaments.
"Special events," including the various four-man and made-for-TV events that have proliferated in recent years, were to be scheduled only in the 17 weeks when no "Super Grand Prix" events were on.
Although it has no jurisdiction over non-Grand Prix events and promoters, which governs the Grand Prix, reportedly had the assurance of the major players' representatives that they would help in effecting this arrangement.
"The Suntory Cup is the first really big defection. I had presumed, naively I guess, that everybody had agreed there wouldn't be any of these big- money events with top players against the 'Supers,'" says Bob Briner, executive director of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and chairman of the Men's Pro Council.
"My primary concern is that this doesn't open the floodgates for this kind of thing the rest of the year."
Briner sent a sternly worded cable to the president of Suntory last month, expressing extreme disappointment at an event "which goes completely against the spirit of the scheduling philosophy of those responsible for the worldwide calendar."
Shigeyuki Shindo, organizer of the exhibition, replied that he regrettably was unaware of the Grand Prix structure when he set his dates, which Connors and Borg dictated.
The intent of the "Super" series was to give the men's circuit, so fragmented in the past, a coherent, comprehensible format similar to the PGA Tour of golf.
In theory, when "Super" events were on, all the top players competing that week would be in them. The million Grand Prix bonus pool based only exceptions would be that each player, in order to qualify for the $2 on season-long point standings, would "drop back" to help a smaller tournament four times a year.
A number of players have competed in nontelevised little-publicized exhibitions during "Super Grand Prix" weeks, but the Suntory Cup is the first involving a cluster of stars.
Borg is represented by Mark McCormack's International Management Group, while Orantes is a client of the Washington law firm of Dell, Craighill, Fentress and Benton. Both firms, which represent the majority of top players, reportedly assured the Council and WCT that they would try to confine "special events" to the designated 17 "free weeks."
"They claim they're not involved in the promotion and they're unhappy about the clients' participation, but when the clients insist on playing they've got to make the arrangements," Briner said.
Connors is managed by his mother Gloria and Vilas by Ion Tiriac, his coach. Neither was party to the "Super Grand Prix" agreement or have shown any discernible concern for the pro game beyond maximizing their own short-term and profits.
Indeed, Connors, Vilas and Borg, the three best players in tennis today, have consistently shown little sense of responsibility toward the tournament circuit from which each makes hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, and what Briner calls "the ongoing health of the game."
What has also caused considerable rancor is WCT's suspicion that Donald dell, a partner in Dell, Craighill and a promotional firm called Professional Service Inc., is "involved in" the Suntory Cup, which Dell emphatically denies.
Asked by Briner to clarify the situation, Dell sent a cable to all members of the council denying that he, his firms, or any individual members of the firms have any financial involvement with the Japanese event. Promoter Shindo confirmed this in a cable to Briner.
Dell did acknowledge, however, that "our office assisted Mr. Shindo in completing his field by introducing him to the players and by helping him obtain final commitments from the players who have elected to participate in this event."
Davies thinks this constitutes involvement and has asked the council to investigate at its meetings in Nice next week. Briner says it will.
Dell, meanwhile, wrote Briner. "If rumors and innuendo become the standard of people's beliefs, then I would urge you . . . to request that Mike Davies and WCT respond in writing to several allegations . . ."
This apparently refers to what Briner calls "a lot of rumors floating around" that WCT's out-of-court settlement last fall of a lawsuit against Borg constitutes an appearance guarantee, in contravention of Grand Prix rules.
Davies acknowledges that settlement of the suit for alleged breach of contract, resulting from Borg's failure to play the 1977 WCT circuit, included a provision that Borg would play "six or eight of WCT's Grand Prix tournaments in 1978," and that WCT would drop its request for damages.
"I don't think that can be interpreted as a guarantee. We don't pay Borg one cent of appearance, expense or travel money," says Davies. "We thought this settlement was the best thing for the whole game, for Borg to be playing tournaments and WCT to drop its lawsuit."
Briner says the Council will look into this matter at Nice as well, and will also study possible amendments to the GrandPrix rules to prtoect the "Super" tournaments. A number of these - including a provision that players entering conflicting events would forfeit their share of the Grand prix bonus pool - have been proposed and rejected for fear they might violate antitrust laws.
"We've tried to make the Grand Prix rules as strict as possible without being attackable legally," says Briner, "but we're going back for another look."
That is necessary only because some of the highest-paid atheletes in sports have not been willing to pass up a few cozy opportunities to make more easy money for the overall good of their sport.