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Tennis : Having Already Come a Long Way, Women Decide to Change Sponsor

Women’s professional tennis will enter the next decade with a new sponsor . . . sort of. There will be a change from Virginia Slims to General Foods--or from cigarettes to cereal. Although both are Philip Morris companies, 1990 will be the first year since 1970 that Virginia Slims has not sponsored the women’s tour.

Along the way, General Foods’ five-year, $28-million contract with the Women’s International Professional Tennis Council (WIPTC) to serve as the worldwide sponsor of the women’s game may have elevated politics to a new level in the most political of pro sports.

General Foods won the right to sponsor women’s tennis over Procter & Gamble, which withdrew its four-year, $31-million bid from consideration when it sensed a lack of support from the players.

As soon as Merrett Stierheim became the chief executive officer of the Women’s International Tennis Assn. (WITA) in 1985, he began pressing for a change in sponsors, partly because of the image drawn between cigarettes and women athletes. For years, there had been a growing uneasiness that women’s tennis was sponsored by a product that is believed to be a cause of lung cancer. However, there was also a feeling of loyalty to Philip Morris and this was especially keen in the veteran players.

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“When we first started out, Virginia Slims was the only people that would help us out,” said Martina Navratilova of the WITA executive board. “They really put women’s tennis on the map. But now, it’s time to diversify.”

As a result of the agreement, General Foods, will become the overall series sponsor, and Virginia Slims will keep its season-ending Virginia Slims Championships, the bonus pool and title sponsorship of an undetermined number of events.

Ellen Merlo, vice president of marketing services at Philip Morris, said that Virginia Slims will announce, just before Wimbledon, details and format of its named events in 1990. Merlo said she is confident that the female players welcomed the continued involvement of Philip Morris.

As president of the WITA, Chris Evert said she was part of discussions with Philip Morris as long as two years ago when the corporation was told that the women’s players did not want a cigarette company as an umbrella sponsor.

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“The general feeling is to try to gradually get away from the cigarette sponsorship, to put it bluntly,” she said. “There has been a lot of negative press about athletes being associated (with cigarettes). But quite honestly, they’re the only ones that really have been able to put up a lot of money for these sports. It’s like, ‘Hey, where are the other sponsors knocking on the door?’ ” she said.

WITA Vice President Pam Shriver said the public may notice the change in sponsorship and it will “take a little bit of the controversial sting off the cigarette focus.”

She said there are many who believe that women’s tennis should not have any involvement with a tobacco product, but she does not agree.

“I am not a smoking advocate in any way, but I am an advocate of people’s Constitutional rights to advertise and to promote a product that’s a legal product,” she said. “It’s not like there’s a lack of information about it. People make decisions on whether or not they’re going to do things that aren’t necessarily good for the body.

“You could do a bunch of things,” Shriver said. “You could over-eat yourself to death. That’s the way I’m going to go.”

Spurned suitor Procter & Gamble got in the last word anyway. The company recently withdrew its $500,000 sponsorship of the WITA, saying the program didn’t mean much without the overall sponsorship of the women’s tour.

Evert is top seeded for the $250,000 Virginia Slims of Indian Wells begining Monday at Hyatt Grand Champions. She has a first-round bye, then plays the winner of Hana Mandlikova’s match against a qualifier.

Evert will be playing her first tournament as the No. 4 ranked player in the world, which she became last week when Gabriela Sabatini moved up to No. 3.

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Also receiving first-round byes are second-seeded Helena Sukova, third-seeded Shriver and fourth-seeded Manuela Maleeva. Lori McNeil, seeded fifth, plays Terry Phelps in a first-round match.

Tracy Austin, playing her first tournament singles in five years, meets seventh-seeded Nicole Provis in the first round. Austin and Kathy Rinaldi are wild-card entries. Maleeva got into the 28-player draw as a special exemption when Amy Frazier, who earned a straight entry into the draw after winning the Virginia Slims of Kansas, decided not to use it.

Claudia Kohde-Kilsch withdrew from singles because of an injury. Patty Fendick also withdrew from singles but will play doubles.

It was bound to happen: The International Tennis Federation, reigning monolith of world tennis, is at odds with the Assn. of Tennis Professionals, who want to govern themselves in 1990.

The ITF, which had sole responsibility for setting the men’s tour calendar until the ATP announced its own 1990 tour schedule, is challenging the ATP about when the Davis Cup should be played in 1990. This move by the IFF is regarded as the first serious test of the ATP’s plan to run its own tour.

In January, the ATP said its 1990 calendar showed that the first round of world-group Davis Cup matches would be scheduled the week starting Jan. 29, the week immediately after the Australian Open. However, the ITF has said that 1990 Davis Cup competition will begin the week of Feb. 5 so players have time to adjust to travel.

If the Davis Cup is actually played the week of Feb. 5 as the ITF wants it to be, then it would be in direct conflict with three ATP tournaments: a $600,000 event at Milan, a $250,000 event at San Francisco and a $150,000 event at Guaruja, Brazil.

Hamilton Jordan, chief executive officer of the ATP, said the ATP tour board would not find the ITF’s decision acceptable.

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However, the ITF remains the governing body responsible for overseeing the Davis Cup.

Consider Swedish player Jonas Svensson. Would you buy a used car from this man? How about a new one?

In a unique promotional agreement with Svensson, Volvo Motors of Sweden has signed Svensson to sell cars at each city where he plays a Grand Prix event.

As expected, Stefan Edberg has signed ProServ to represent him. Edberg, the 23-year-old reigning Wimbledon champion, recently sued Advantage International, which was his management company for six years.

Last week, Advantage countersued Edberg for breach of contract and is seeking $7.5 million in damages.

According to Advantage, the dispute started when the Inland Revenue, the United Kingdom’s version of the Internal Revenue Service, audited Edberg, who maintains a residence in London.

Edberg sued Advantage alleging breach of contract, demanding that Advantage pay his English taxes. He also asked that his contract with the Washington-based company, which has three years to run, be terminated.

According to Advantage, after Edberg filed suit, the tax issue was settled in his favor. Advantage decided to sue.

Charlie Pasarell, tournament director of the Newsweek Champions Cup , said he would like to have John McEnroe as one of his five wild cards, but McEnroe has played three straight weeks and has said he needs time off to prepare for the Davis Cup, April 7-9, at San Diego.

Pasarell’s biggest star, Boris Becker, withdrew from the WCT Finals in Dallas because of the flu and Andre Agassi, his second-biggest star, withdrew from the same event after he pulled a muscle. Both are expected to play in the Newsweek event.

Tennis Notes

There’s a new book out by Donald Dell, founder and chairman of ProServ and one of the most powerful men in tennis: “Minding Other People’s Business,” published by Villard Books. . . . Ivan Lendl, top-ranked player in the world, will play Jimmy Connors in the continuing Michelin Challenge exhibition series at 7:30 p.m. April 12 at the Forum.

ProServ, which represents Connors, said he withdrew from the WCT Finals because of injury. Connors is entered at Scottsdale this week and also in the Newsweek Champions Cup. . . . Since Pam Shriver is not playing the French Open, her usual Grand Slam doubles partner, Martina Navratilova, will be teaming with Hana Mandlikova. Navratilova is also going to have a different doubles partner at Rome: Chris Evert.


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