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."