THE FIRST section of Slovakia's new National Tennis Centre in Bratislava has been completed and will be open for inspection on March 18. But even as the centre is readied for certification by international tennis bodies, critics are asking how nearly Sk200 million (4.8 million euro) from one of the country's largest privatisations was used to pay for construction, despite such a plan being thrown out by lawmakers.
Designed to feature a five-court training area and a central court with a retractable roof and seating capacity for 4,000, the new centre will meet international tennis standards and allow Slovakia to host professional tennis events, including international team competitions like the Davis Cup and Fed Cup events.
Originally approved by the cabinet in late 2001, the tennis centre was to be funded primarily from privatisation revenue, despite objections from economists who said money from the sale of state resources should be used to pay for structural reforms and reduce the country's debt.
The cabinet proposed that the centre be constructed using money from the $2.7 billion (2.4 billion euro) sale of gas utility SPP last spring, but the plan was not approved. Instead, the FNM privatisation agency gave Sk860 million (13.4 million euro) from the SPP sale to the Education Ministry for development projects, including the ministry's "Lets Bring Sports Back to School" campaign, aimed at repairing school gymnasiums.
But according to officials from the FNM and the Education Ministry, over Sk195 million (4.7 million euro) earmarked for developing sport in schools was in fact channelled into the tennis centre.
"The money from the privatisation of SPP didn't go directly to [the tennis centre] as was originally planned, but was instead sent to the Education Ministry on the government's order," said FNM spokesperson Tatjana Lesajová.
Officials from the ministry say that they then passed the funds on to the centre because that had been the government's original plan.
"We received the money and then sent it on to its originally intended destination," said Ladislav Čambal, head of the sports section at the Education Ministry.
The government has already allocated over Sk322 million (7.7 million euro) for the tennis centre, including Sk30 million (717,000 euro) from lottery money and another Sk15 million (358,000 euro) from other sources at the Education Ministry. The project is due to receive another Sk20 million (478,000 euro) this year from lottery revenues.
Privatisation officials are unhappy that money from the sale of state resources was used to support the tennis centre project over their objections and the recommendations of international financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank, both of which urged Slovakia to use the SPP windfall to pay down foreign debt.
"We still hold as a fundamental principle that privatisation revenues should not be used for one-off projects but for reforms and reducing debt," said Lesajová.
Finance Minister Ivan Mikloš, however, has defended building the centre with privatisation money, calling it "an exception to the rule, because tennis raises the profile of and promotes Slovakia."
As deputy prime minister for economy in 2001, Mikloš had backed the original plan, although he maintains that the idea came from then-education minister Milan Ftáčnik.
Despite questions on the centre's financing, leaders of the Slovak Tennis Association (STZ) say the state's investment is necessary for Slovakia to build on its recent successes in the sport and put the country on the world's tennis map.
"The last investment into tennis in Slovakia was in 1940," said STZ general secretary Igor Moška.
"I think that the tennis centre is justly financed from public resources. What more do tennis players have to achieve for Slovakia, so that once every 50 years they build some kind of [stadium]?" Moška asked.
Currently, six Slovak tennis players are ranked in top 100 for singles play in the men's ATP and women's WTA tennis associations, including Daniela Hantuchová (5), Karol Kučera (42), Janette Husárová (43), Dominik Hrbatý (55), Henrietta Nagyová (64), and Karol Beck (75).
Among Slovakia's tennis successes last year were Hanuchova's mixed-doubles victory with Zimbabwe's Kevin Ullyett at the January 2002 Australian Open and her women's title victory over former world number one Martina Hingis at Indian Wells in March.
Hantuchová was also part of Slovakia's Fed Cup team with Husárová, Nagyová, and Martina Suchá that beat Spain for the top team prize in women's tennis in November.
According to the STZ, Slovak tennis players are among the country's most visible figures, and their successes reflect on the whole country.
"Tennis players do excellent work for this country. They are and will be the most famous Slovaks in the world," Moška said.
17. Mar 2003 at 0:00 | Dewey Smolka