OTHERS

His vital function is that of a catalyst

FIFA IS the controlling body of world soccer; international hockey is run by the Brussels-based FIH. In tennis, though, things are different. The U.S. Open, like Wimbledon and the other Grand Slam tournaments, stands on its own. The main men's tour is operated by the Association of Tennis Professionals; the Sanex WTA Tour runs the women's circuit. So where does the International Tennis Federation come in?

ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti sees one of his vital functions as being catalyst for the different bodies that lead the sport. ``We need to act cohesively,'' he says, ``to keep the game attractive for young people, aim to attract a larger audience'' - as the real challenge for tennis is to withstand competition from other sports.

Elected in July last year to lead the ITF into the 21st Century, the 58-year-old Italian is having some success in getting the bodies closer. The two year-end play-offs, the ITF's Grand Slam Cup and the ATP Tour Championships, are now merged in the Tennis Masters Cup - easing the confusion of the tennis public. The event's inaugural meet will be in Lisbon, November 27 to December 3; and it would move around the globe in subsequent years, with Sao Paulo a likely venue in 2001.

``The ATP has also agreed,'' Ricci Bitti confided, ``to Davis Cup dates for the next four years, which is a very good thing.'' We were talking in the ITF's little office in Wimbledon's Centre- Court complex, during the championship than meeting at the federation headquarters in Roehampton, two and a-half miles north-west of Wimbledon. ``The Sanex WTA Tour's Europe office is in our building,'' the president added, as further evidence of a growing cohesion.

Ricci Bitti, having moved to London from Rome, heads an 85- strong staff at Roehampton, the ITF office being in the Bank of England sports-club grounds. An engineering graduate from the University of Bologna - ``the oldest university in the world,'' he says, with pride - Ricci Bitti's professional career was as a marketing man in the telecommunications industry, working out of Milan for some of the world's leading companies in the field.

As a participant, he had played - in the Italian national championships - against both the great Nicola Pietrangeli and Adriano Panatta. He had competed, too, in doubles matches against ``your Krishnan, a beautiful player'' and Jaidip Mukerjea (``not like Krishnan, but quite a good player''). Ricci Bitti was 30 when he first came on to the administrative side, and in 1981 joined the board of the European Tennis Association, which he headed between 1993-99. He was president of the Italian association for two years immediately before becoming ITF chief.

Ricci Bitti served on ITF's committee of management between 1987 and '97: a period during which the ATP broke away from the original Grand Prix circuit to start its own tour. ``It was a convenient move,'' is how it seems to him, now: ``Though not the best solution. But, at that time, the Grand Slams - as a group - were not ready to think in common.''

The ITF's annual budget is now over 30 million dollars, he projects, having registered a three-fold increase during Brian Tobin's spell as president. Apart from putting up some 10 million dollars as prize- money in the Challenger and Futures satellite tours, it spends 2.5 million - to which is added 1.5 million dollars from the Grand Slam fund - for the development of the game. This includes not just supporting tournaments such as the East European and African championships, but also aiding player groups and individuals.

``You must know that among the players who have benefited this way are Kuerten, your own Paes and Bhupathi, and the three Moroccans,'' he pointed out.

The challenges were many, but what were the problems? Would he agree there might be other leading players involved in drug- taking, like the banned Czech, Peter Korda (Grand Slam Cup champion of 1993), but not getting caught in the testing?

Ricci Bitti would not give a direct answer. ``It is a very difficult issue to solve,'' he acknowledged, ``It requires the co-operation and co-ordination of sports organisations and governments; the testing has to be consistent; and it requires a lot of money.'' Co-operation with WADA, the new anti-doping agency working closely with the International Olympic Committee, could help, he believed. He made an important point that out-of- competition testing must be a component of any overall scheme.

The president is pleased that IOC had made tennis a Category B sport - alongside basketball, cycling, soccer, swimming and volleyball (athletics was the lone Category A sport). The IOC had also commanded the ITF's three-year survey ``Tennis Towards 2000'' as the most important market research in sports.

Based on that study, the federation had planned the Tennis Science and Technology congress, which took place in London early August, and the forthcoming marketing summit, billed for November, also in U.K.

Ricci Bitti is greatly concerned about the leading men's disdain for doubles. ``You know, I think it's very, very important for the education of a tennis player... the volley is like a compulsory exercise,'' he expanded. It was something he had been discussing with the ATP leaders, and if they all could not do something - ``Doubles is going to die'', Ricci Bitti shrugged his shoulders expressively.

Over the last 20 years the ITF transformation had made a largely British-run, voluntry organisation into a professional, commercial body. ``Our two hundred members give us great reach,'' says the president, ``while vertically, our concerns are not just the pro game and juniors but veterans' and wheelchair tennis as well.''

We talked a bit about the recent rule changes. What did Ricci Bitti personally feel about them?

He gave an example of no-ad scoring. On the decisive point in a juniors' match, a sweeping forehand return lands on the baseline. After the players have shaken hands, the victor rushes to the spot where the ball hit the chalk and bends low to kiss it: the vanquished starts sobbing.

``Great for TV watchers, don't you think?'' Ricci Bitti asks, ``And yet, I'm a bit reluctant to accept this change myself, if only because it is not in the line of tradition, of being two points ahead.''

SUBROTO SIRKAR

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