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Tanks For Showing Up: Why men's tennis stars choose to lose

The tanks came rolling into Prague at tennis's Czech Open last
week. Top seed Yevgeny Kafelnikov (below, right) ran his losing
streak to seven matches by dropping a yawner to Richard Fromberg
in the first round (which didn't keep him from being anointed as
the world's No. 1 player on Monday). Then second seed Goran
Ivanisevic (left) lost to unknown Markus Hantschk. Both top
seeds played listlessly and watched gettable balls go by, and
both were jeered by the fans at the Czech Tennis Centre.

The sight of leading players combusting in the early rounds on
the ATP tour is becoming as common as a Pete Sampras injury. A
No. 1 seed has not won a tour event this year. But Czech Open
officials didn't see the losses by Kafelnikov and Ivanisevic as
mere upsets. They accused both players of tanking --losing on
purpose--and refused to pay their six-figure guarantees. "I
don't distinguish between a secretary and a Kafelnikov," said
Czech Open official Peter Kovarcik. "No work, no money."

Why tank? One reason is the ranking system on the men's tour. A
player's world rank is based solely on his best 14 performances
over the past 12 months. A frequent flier like Kafelnikov, who
has played 32 events since last May, can afford to lose 18
first-round matches and still ascend to No. 1. Also, ever-bigger
appearance fees turn lower-tier events like the Czech Open into
glorified exhibitions and blunt the stars' hunger to win. In
Prague, for instance, Ivanisevic and Kafelnikov were promised
far more in appearance money than the $66,400 that Dominik
Hrbaty got for winning the tournament.

"The potential for tanking is there when you give players so
much," says Tom Ross, agent for Michael Chang and Todd Martin,
"but it goes on less in men's tennis than a lot of people
think." Maybe so, but no one talks about tanking in women's
tennis. Think it's only a coincidence that the WTA forbids
appearance money?

--L. Jon Wertheim