Is tennis becoming more glitz than sport?

Outspoken: ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti. Matthew Stockman. 13/11/2002.
Outspoken: ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti. Matthew Stockman. 13/11/2002.

MADRID - "Ladies and gentlemen, we are killing our sport."

MADRID - "Ladies and gentlemen, we are killing our sport."

The phrase resounded earlier this month at an elegant dinner in London, and reflects the power struggle in tennis.

Everyone seems to hold everyone else suspect - and in particular the "Disney model" put forward by the new ATP boss, South African Etienne de Villiers.

"The circuit is focused on getting more money, which is understandable. But we are the guardians of the essence of our sport," Franceso Ricci Bitti, president of the International Tennis Federation (ITF), told Deutsche Presse-Agentur in an interview.

"Money is never too much if it is at the top of the sport. I do, however, believe there is too much money in the lower part of the circuit, at the start of many players' careers. There is money that destroys many careers, young players who get enough money to be satisfied and lose their motivation."

The ITF also wants to preserve its "jewel" - the Davis Cup - and is not about to give in to pressures from the ATP to revamp the circuit.

But it will not be easy for Ricci Bitti to hang on because tennis - which has been the object of a struggle between "traditionalists" and "modernisers" for decades - lacks clear leadership.

Every organisation has some power. The ITF controls the rules, the Davis Cup, the Fed Cup, and indirectly the grand slam tournaments. The ATP and the WTA manage the men's and the women's circuits, respectively, and handle lucrative television contracts.

What does De Villiers want? Many observers of tennis have asked themselves the question. After 15 years with Mark Miles at the helm, the ATP's style is completely different today.

An American gave way to a South African, a man with a background in politics gave way to a businessman who specialises in entertainment; a man who made his career at the Walt Disney Company.

De Villiers talks a lot, he talks to everyone and he chairs meetings in which he deploys an unusual, histrionic repertoire in the often flat world of sports business.

Tennis over the next few months could come to resemble a roller-coaster quite a bit, with a series of ups and downs, euphoria and disappointments.

That is the case with Mercedes-Benz, one of the main sponsors of the men's circuit with $10 million a year.

German magazine Capital wrote last week that the company wants to leave the ATP and tennis as soon as possible to focus on golf, fashion, music and - to a limited extent - football.

One of the keys in De Villiers' project is the restructuring of the calendar for 2009.

He wants to create "mini grand slams" and other special tournaments across the world. He intends to get players on his side by substantially increasing the money they get, but he is causing unrest among the tournaments.

In the meantime, the WTA is enjoying the boost of the $88 million it is getting from Sony Ericsson for a six-year contract, while it is on the fast track to making tennis ever more "glamourous."

"Top players deserve to earn more money. They are like stars of showbusiness, entertainers," Ricci Bitti said.

But the enthusiasm of the ITF boss came with a warning.

"Sport is entertainment, of course. But it must be credible."

It seems there is ever less talk of tennis and sport. Debate is centred on sponsors, television and marketing. - Sapa-DPA