Since Monday, Munich is hosting like every year its ATP World Tour 250 tournament on clay. But in the early nineties, the German city was also hosting a controversial event: The Grand Slam Cup, set at the end of each year to compete with the Masters, divided the world of tennis with its million dollars for nearly a decade. Back on the difficult beginnings of this event, which looked a lot like a cash machine.
It took the help of umpire Bruno Rebeuh and Ken Farrar, the supervisor, to separate them. The scorer's table displayed 6 points all in the tiebreak of the third set. The volley of the American Brad Gilbert was announced fault. Seconds later, the point was eventually granted. His compatriot and opponent David Wheaton protested. The two men walked to the net, grappled, until ending up forehead against forehead, almost coming to blows. A disproportionate reaction? "The umpire made a million dollars mistake," explained Wheaton after the match, first loser in the semi-finals of the new Grand Slam Cup, founded that year, in 1990. Today, the event has disappeared. But in the late eighties, it was enough to strain the atmosphere. Its prize money was the biggest ever offered in the history of tennis: 6 million dollars in total, including two for the winner, four times more than in any major tournament at the time. If defeated in the first round, the prize was still 100 000 dollars; for survivors, a private dressing room and a driver were made available to them for a week. The idea? To bring together at the end of the year, indoor and on a fast surface (carpet), the sixteen players who achieved the best performance in Grand Slams in the past season. No ATP points or even official title were offered... “Our greatest weapon is the money” confessed Philippe Chatrier, then President of the International Tennis Federation (ITF) and instigator of the event. «Today, the dollar is king and we must accept it... Whether we like or not!»
« Look at the homeless »
To understand the birth of this new knockout table, you must go two years back. On the 30th of August 1988, the heat was oppressive on the parking of Flushing Meadows. Hamilton Jordan, professor, writer, economic expert and executive director of the ATP took the microphone in front of an audience of journalists: "Tennis is at a crossroad." Basically, this press conference was the opportunity to announce the formation of a new professional tour. Its name? The ATP Tour, replacing the Nabisco Grand Prix, named after an American food company specializing in the development of biscuits, chocolate and various kinds of treats.As of January 1990, after months of tough negotiations, ATP signed a deal with IBM and Mercedes as main sponsors and took under its control the commercial exploitation of the many tournaments. The calendar was reworked, TV rights exploded and the Masters, now called "ATP World Tour Finals," offered the same amount of points in the ranking than Grand Slams, last crumbs left to the ITF. The former exclusive authority of the tour, symbol of government in power, just lost a battle against the players themselves. In revenge, the latter invented the Grand Slam Cup, organized at the end of the year, only a month before the ATP World Tour Finals in Frankfurt, a few hundred miles away, in Munich. Obviously.
"The prize money of the Grand Slam Cup is grotesque, for tennis in general, but also politically: at a time when hundreds of thousands of East German refugees are seeking work and housing, to give two million dollars to the winner of a tennis tournament is not good for our sport," said in L'Equipe Gunther Sanders, executive director of the German federation. In addition to the controversial city choice, the tournament divided its own actors. At the announcement of its creation, players were unanimous in condemning it. Yet for its first edition, only three persisted in their refusal to participate: John McEnroe feared that modern tennis players would-become "whores", Andre Agassi talked of a "soulless" event when Boris Becker considered the prize-money "obscene" and "perverse". But for Yannick Noah, Thomas Muster or Goran Ivanisevic, the temptation was too strong. Jakob Hlasek victorious of Jimmy Connors in the first round, explained: "Once on the court, you don’t think about money. But it would be foolish to say that we didn't think about it when we came to play this tournament. My father had to work twenty years to save the 300,000 dollars I just won in a single match." Same family spirit for Ivan Lendl, eliminated in the quarterfinals. "I'm expecting my second child in a few months, I'll have to make ends meet,» said in Sports Illustrated the man who would exceed 15 million dollars in career earnings. «My wife Samantha pushed me to play and I think she was right. You never spit on someone trying to give you money... Look at the homeless!»
Bermuda and forged medical certificate
In 1990, the victory of Pete Sampras gave some prestige to the event. His opponent, Brad Gilbert, who owed his place to Agassi's withdrawal, didn't hesitate to say that this final was the "peak" of his career. It must be said that he has just won in a week one fifth of his total revenues for the period 1981-1995, in singles and doubles. Figures to make any mouth water... Even Boris Becker from the next edition. The previous year, the German champion had boycotted the event. In December 1991, he not only went to Munich, but he defended the tournament. "This tournament is a great chance for Germany to promote tennis to young people. And I think that if I’m not playing, the stands will be empty," he told L'Equipe. Victim of a virus at the last minute, he nevertheless ended up withdrawing.
A year earlier, Andre Agassi threw in the towel because of an imaginary health concern. Understand: after publicly announcing his boycott, the IFT threatened him of a fine and a suspension for the next three Grand Slam tournaments. Stubborn, the kid of Las Vegas then managed to find a doctor to give him a forged medical certificate. The goal? To find an official excuse for his absence and avoid sanctions. Problem: during a dinner with his family in a restaurant in Florida, the Agassi clan mentioned the trickery while Barry Lorge, head of sports at the San Diego Union, was sat at a nearby table. The next morning, the information was released; Agassi stayed home, but already announced his presence for the following year. To avoid making waves. "If the results allow me... But I'm sure that if I get eliminated in the first round of Wimbledon in July, they will think-that I did it on purpose," he said. And to continue the "resistance" in his own way: "To show that I am against this tournament, I have decided not to pay in the prices that will be distributed there, whatever they are, and to give them to a charity.»
« The spiritual wreck of our era»
In 2004, David Wheaton was a happy retired tennis-player. He too had decided to donate most of his career earnings to a cause close to his heart: an organization of religious seminaries for altar boys in Minneapolis. To save them, he said, from the "spiritual wreck of our era." "Without the two million euros of the Grand Slam Cup nothing would have been possible." Unhappy semi-finalist in 1990 against Brad Gilbert, the American, known for his bandana in the colours of Star-Spangled Banner, had indeed won the following year. By his own admission: « Money has never been a motivation for me. But that day, when I served for the match, I literally started shaking... »