Seventeen years into the era of open tennis, the sport has never been richer. Players are making fortunes in prize money, exhibition money and endorsements. Their agents are making fortunes by making them fortunes. Promoters and tournament directors are counting their money. And television coverage becomes more lucrative by the minute.
But in the midst of all this wealth, there is turmoil. The stakes are high and the issue is simple: who will run men's tennis?
The Men's International Pro Tennis Council, led by its administrator, Marshall Happer, believes the game should be run by an autonomous group made up of players, tournament directors and administrators. In other words, the council itself.
The International Management Group (IMG) and ProServ Inc., the two giant agencies that manage players, tournaments, television rights and sponsorships around the world, think things are just fine the way they are now. The way they are now, according to Happer, mean that IMG and ProServ run the game.
"Almost everyone in tennis is intimidated by IMG and ProServ," Happer said. "Their hand is everywhere. There are just too many conflicts of interest. That has to change."
Donald Dell, chairman of ProServ, fires back at Happer this way: "There are more conflicts inside the council than there have ever been outside the council. Marshall Happer wants a monopoly in tennis. He wants to control everything. He wants to be commissioner of tennis."
Control is the issue. Happer and the council feel it is a conflict of interest for agencies such as IMG and ProServ to run tournaments, provide the players for the tournaments and then package the television rights for them, even sometimes doing commentary on those telecasts. IMG and ProServ say everything is working just fine that way and there is no need to change.
When Happer last spring proposed rules to the council that would have effectively forced IMG and ProServ out of the tennis tournament business, those two joined a suit already filed against the council by Volvo (a client of ProServ), alleging the council was trying to force them out of the business of running tennis tournaments.
This has served to unify ProServ and IMG, for years intense rivals in the often vicious competition to secure clients.
"If the U.S. Senate wanted to pass a law banning carbonated soft drinks, I'm sure Coke and Pepsi would work together," Bob Kain, director of IMG's tennis division, said. "Business sometimes makes strange bedfellows. When their business is threatened, so is ours, because we're in the same business."
Dell says he understands the council's concerns to some extent and believes Happer is sincere "about his concern for the game." But he says, "If there had been a council 10 years ago and they wanted to start from scratch, maybe it could have been done. But not now. You can't unscramble the eggs after they've already been cooked."
Since tennis became a big business in 1968, when it went to open play -- allowing pros and amateurs to compete together -- the game's biggest nonplaying name has been Dell. Once captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team, Dell did television analysis on PBS beginning in 1967. Two years later, he opened his agency. His first client was Arthur Ashe and, from those beginnings, Dell built an empire.
IMG and its founder and current chairman, Mark McCormack, came into tennis after having built an empire in golf, where McCormack managed Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. McCormack and IMG made their first big splash in tennis when they took over the management of the illustrious Australians -- Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and John Newcombe -- then, in 1973, Kain signed Bjorn Borg.
Not surprisingly, ProServ and IMG became, and have remained, bitter rivals. Both firms are very much involved in the management of tournaments. Some of those tournaments are Grand Prix tournaments, which include the four majors (the Australian, French and U.S. Opens, plus Wimbledon) and the Grand Prix Masters.
Under rules set up by the pro council, players must compete in at least 14 Grand Prix tournaments a year. ProServ owns a tournament in Florida and manages several others, including the D.C. National Bank Classic. IMG manages the U.S. Pro in Boston, a stop in Cleveland and several stops on the European circuit.
For a fee or a percentage, both firms also help line up sponsors for tournaments. ProServ got Volvo involved in tennis in the 1970s, first as a tournament sponsor, then as sponsor for both the Masters and the Grand Prix tour and now, again, as a tournament sponsor.
A relatively minor incident involving Volvo brought about the suit that now threatens to greatly alter the structure of tennis. After Volvo lost sponsorship of the Grand Prix and the Masters to Nabisco, Volvo placed a banner at individual tournaments it still sponsored. That banner -- and not one hung by Nabisco, the tour's overall sponsor -- was picked up by television. The television rights were controlled by ProServ, which represents Volvo.
In March, Happer sent an angry letter to Volvo chairman Bjorn Ahlstrom accusing him of, "engaging in a course of conduct which violates the laws of the United States and constitutes acts of unfair competition by deliberately and intentionally misleading the public into believing that Volvo is the circuit sponsor of Grand Prix tennis."
Happer wrote that he and the council were "demanding" that Volvo and its agents (ProServ) "cease and desist" immediately.
In retrospect, Happer says maybe he should have called instead of writing, but this brings up the one other area in which ProServ and IMG service tennis tournaments. Both sell TV rights, also for a per-centage. Often, they produce the telecasts they have sold, and one of the analysts for the USA Network and for PBS tennis telecasts is Dell.
"I always say at the top of the telecast if I have a relationship with a player," Dell said. "And, if anything, I have been accused of going too far in being critical of my clients on the air. I don't see any reason why I should stop."
Dell's critics says this isn't true, that he may refer to a client on the air as "my friend," but often neglects to say specifically that he and the player are financially linked.
Dell's insistence on remaining on TV is a relatively minor issue. The major issues, according to Happer, are the two giant firms' insistence on representing both players and tournaments.
ProServ and IMG also run a number of special events around the world. "Special event" is a tennis euphemism for a tournament in which players openly receive guarantees for playing. The major reason for the pro council's 14-event minimum is to prevent special events and exhibitions from dominating tennis. After all, why would a player take part in a Grand Prix tournament in which he may have to win six matches to collect $60,000 when he can play in a special event and be guaranteed that much or more simply by showing up?
John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl and Jimmy Connors each make well in excess of $1 million annually from special events and exhibitions, more than double what they make in prize money from Grand Prix tournaments.
There is one other agency in this scenario: Advantage International. Advantage is No. 3 among tennis agencies. It was spawned in 1983 by a squabble within ProServ that resulted in several of that agency's top people -- led by Dell's longtime partners Frank Craighill and Lee Fentress -- leaving the firm and forming Advantage.
Advantage does not run Grand Prix tournaments but it does represent players like McEnroe, Hana Mandlikova and others. Although asked by ProServ and IMG to join in their suit, Advantage declined. "We think this is a one-issue lawsuit and the one issue is the involvement of ProServ and IMG in the running of tennis tournaments," said Peter Lawler, vice president of Advantage. "Clearly, there are conflicts involved there that should be stopped."
When agencies actually own the sanctions to a tournament, three major conflicts do arise: scheduling, officiating and the issuing of wild-card spots.
A wild card is a free trip into the draw of a tournament for a player whose ranking does not grant him an automatic berth. For example, in a 64-player tournament, there may be 50 ranked players who go directly into the main draw. There may be eight berths for qualifiers and six wild cards. The wild cards can be given to anyone: an aging star with a big name or a rising local star. Or they can be given to a client of the agency running the tournament. Or they can be given to a young player the agency is recruiting.
"Are wild cards used for recruiting?" Kain asked. "Sure, they are. I think that's one area where Marshall has a legitimate point and where we would be willing to sit down and talk."
Dell concedes that agencies use wild cards, but says, "If I'm running the tournament in Washington and I want to put my puppy dog into the draw, that's my right.
"But we aren't alone in this," Dell said. "The ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) runs tournaments and they use their wild cards for their board members. When John McEnroe plays in a tournament, he gets his brother a wild card into the tournament. How are we different?"
Scheduling is another area in which Kain concedes Happer's concerns merit discussion. If an agency is running a tournament and one of its clients wants to play at a specific time and gets that specific time, there are bound to be accusations of favoritism.
Again, Dell doesn't back down. "I don't run the Washington tournament," he said. "I founded it, but there is a tournament director who does scheduling and there is a Grand Prix supervisor who has to approve that schedule."
True. But the tournament director in Washington last summer was a ProServ employe. And, according to David Cooper, who supervises Grand Prix officials, the tournament supervisor will only step in if the schedule does not conform to Grand Prix rules.
Regarding officiating, Happer argues that the situation of an agency representing players and then hiring officials for matches involving those players is akin to management of the Washington Redskins hiring the officials who work their football team's games. Again, Dell points out that the Grand Prix supervisor has final say. Again, the Grand Prix makes the point that only if a rule is broken does the supervisor intervene.
Happer maintains that IMG and ProServ use their influence with clients to do business with tournaments. "There are only so many top tennis players in the world," he said. "That means tournaments around the world are scrambling like crazy to get guys."
What that means, in Happer's view, is this: if one of the agencies wants to negotiate the TV rights for a tournament, or if it wants to be hired to procure sponsors, it can use players as a wedge.
None of the agencies denies the use of players as trade-offs, as in, "You want Connors, give me a wild card for X." But they don't see that as a reason to bar them from involvement in tournaments.
"We've run tennis tournaments for 15 years. That's longer than the pro council has existed and we are very good at it," Kain said. "We think what we do is good for the game. We're good at what we do and we don't see any reason why we should stop."
And that is the heart of the issue: ProServ and IMG are making a lot of money through their involvement with tennis tournaments and don't want to cease that involvement. Happer and the council maintain that it is bad for tennis to have agencies -- regardless of competence -- representing both players and the tournaments recruiting them.
Given the personal as well as professional rancor, this case appears headed for a court decision. And historically, court decisions -- whomever they favor -- lead to major changes in a sport.