Czech tennis finds freedom has its price
Reuters, 1997

PRAGUE - The fall of communism may have brought new opportunities to the Czech Republic, but as one of the world's top tennis nations is learning, new-found liberties come at a price.

The Czech Tennis Association (CTS), which over the years has produced the likes of Ivan Lendl and Martina Navratilova, is cutting costs because it has been contending with financial problems that threaten the future of the sport in the country.

If the situation does not improve, say some, the Czech Republic may wait a long time before it sees another of its compatriots crowned as a Grand Slam winner.

"We are one of the world's top countries in tennis, and to stay at this level is very financially demanding", warned CTS official Frantisek Pala.

The task at hand is daunting – replacing a state-supported tennis programme that over the past 25 years has produced such great players as Navratilova, Lendl, Helena Sukova, Hana Mandlikova and Jana Novotna.

Even current women's world number one Martina Hingis, competing for Switzerland, got her start in the system.

Communist support brought Czech players 35 Grand Slam titles, three Olympic medals and wins in the Davis and Federation Cups.

But Czech tennis is now finding that money rules. Unlike other former Soviet Bloc countries, financial backing was rarely a problem for the sport here before communism fell in 1989.

While many Eastern Bloc governments saw tennis as a decadent western sport and gave it little or no support, Czech authorities funded the game as part of its Olympic programme.

"There is some tension in the tennis community because we have to count every crown," said CTS Director of Coaching Frantisek Zlesak. "We have to be more careful with our money."

The problem came to a head late last year when local carmaker Skoda, which had been the main sponsor of previous Czech Opens, announced that it would abandon the tournament due to commitments at the World Ice Hockey Championships, which were held at the same time.

Ladislav Drozda, head of sponsorship at InterCom Praha, a marketing research company that works with Skoda, said one consideration was that tennis is currently the third most popular sport here behind soccer and hockey.

Last year, Czech tennis star Petr Korda participated in a German tournament rather than in the Czech Open because German officials had offered him more money.

Zlesak reported a 20 percent drop in sponsorship money from 1996 to 1997, and said that while the government has picked up some of the slack - covering one - third of the association's operating costs last year and half its costs this year - it is barely enough to keep the system running.

Instead of devoting valuable time to improving the system, many CTS officials are now forced to spend hours scouring travel agencies for better deals for accommodations and cheaper plane tickets for juniors going abroad.

But that is the least troubling effect on junior tennis. The CTS is now sending less money to regional associations - a move that officials believe is shaking the country's tennis programme to its very core.

"We used to have our own psychologist and nutritionist," said Petr Hutka, president of Prerov tennis club.

"But now we don't have money for extra care. Still, what I see as the most serious problem is that training centres for young players have been closed. Children would train there from the time they were 10 until they were 15. Then they would join our club. Now that the centres have closed, we admit players as young as 13 to our club.

"Nonetheless, there is a real danger that our youngest talent is slipping through the cracks."

Zlesak said the problem can be addressed in part by recruiting top-notch coaches, but conceded that tennis officials are in a bind.

In communist Czechoslovakia, controls over travel documents and foreign work permits regulated the number of coaches leaving the country, keeping the "brain drain" on coaching to a minimum.

And the competition for funding for coaches and player development, Zlesak said, does not end on the court.

"It's not just sports associations that need backing, but also theatre troupe, film clubs and other organizations. And there aren't enough big companies here to support everyone's interests," he said.

With new possibilities open at every corner, youths who once could only turn to "accepted" activities such as tennis are now inundated with myriad opportunities to occupy their free time, further clouding the sport's future.

"The world of sport is not conservative," Drozda said on the question of sponsorship in coming years. "New sports [such as skateboarding] are becoming popular among young people, so it is difficult to predict the future of tennis."

Czech hockey players chase gold in NHL
Reuters, 1997

PRAGUE - Leading Czech Republic ice hockey players, who skated to the bronze medal at last month's world championships, now hope to mint gold in the National Hockey League (NHL).

Martin Prochazka, Vladimir Vujtek and Libor Prochazka each caught the eyes of scouts early in their careers and were drafted by NHL clubs at the beginning of the 1990s.

But none attracted much attention until their impressive performances in Finland this year when the defending champions battled through injuries and suspensions to capture third place.

With two highly successful world tournaments under their belts, the Czechs are being courted by several NHL clubs.

"Our accomplishments in Finland improved our chances of having successful careers in the NHL," Vujtek said. "And that is the dream of every hockey player."

Martin Prochazka, a centre, has been negotiating with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and is expected to sign with the club by next month, according to Jaromir Henys, the Czech representative for Edmonton-based agent Rich Winter.

Prochazka was drafted by the Leafs in 1991, but has spent his career in Europe despite an equally strong performance at the Czechs' gold medal winning campaign at the world championships in Vienna in 1996, where he scored the game winning goal against Canada in the final minute of play.

Toronto is also negotiating with Vujtek, a left winger who spent three seasons in the NHL, one with the Montreal Canadiens (1991-92) and two with the Edmonton Oilers (1992-94), and is now a free agent.

Martin Prochazka and Vujtek, both 25 years old, tied for most goals (seven) at the world championships, where they played on the same line. Both were named to the world all-star team.

In addition to the two forwards, Henys represents 23-year old defenceman Libor Prochazka, who was drafted by the St. Louis Blues in 1993, but, like Martin Prochazka, no relation, has spent his career in Europe.

He may don a Blues jersey in the near future, however, since he is now negotiating with the team.

The players are eager to skate in the NHL, said Vujtek, but not desperate.

"I was in a different position when I last played in the NHL," said the Czech, who is currently with a professional team in Finland. "I have more experience now, and could use that to my advantage. But I won't go at all costs."

Henys said Vujtek has been approached by four NHL clubs, but wants to go to Toronto with Martin Prochazka.

He added that the two forwards will likely sign guaranteed contracts, ensuring financial security whether they play with the Leafs or with the club's farm team in St. John's.

"Martin and Vladimir are excellent players and they should make an impact in the NHL," said Henys. "But you know, it is always risky."

Still, he insists there is enough room in the NHL for even more Czech players in the future.

"After the Winter Olympics, there will be a lot of opportunity for our [young] players because a lot of excellent players in the NHL will be 38 and their careers will be over," he said

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