When the association of tennis professionals (ATP) declared "Serfs up!" in 1988 and decided to run the men's tour by itself beginning this year, one of the first things it wanted to find out was how much people like tennis players. A survey was commissioned to gauge their image worldwide, and, as ATP Tour CEO Mark Miles said last week, "The good news is, we finished higher than the boxers." There was no word on how they did against professional wrestlers.
It may not matter. When the eight highest-ranked men competed in the ATP Tour World Championship in Frankfurt last week, by far the most interesting among them was Andre (the Giant) Agassi. Agassi had put on 20 pounds this fall by lifting weights and playing almost no tennis. Early in the week he seemed to write off his chances not only for the tournament at hand but for next year as well. "I'm really preparing myself for 1992, when I'll be ready to go big-time," he said.
Right. What exactly was he waiting for? The New Hampshire primary? A tryout with the Olympic bobsled team?
After his humiliating straight-sets loss to Pete Sampras in the U.S. Open final, Agassi set about strengthening his physique as well as his serve (on those rare occasions when he took to the court). It was obvious that he had done the latter during his crushing 6-4, 6-2 first-round defeat of Sampras in the round-robin portion of the ATP championship. "I was out to prove that the Open was just one day in New York," he said.
November 26, 1990
It was also clear last week that the other players regard Agassi as the leading pill in their midst. Even Ivan Lendl—always a contender in the most-despised category-announced he was rooting for Sampras against Agassi. "I'm sad anyone can cherish Agassi," said Lendl. "The kids see him as a rebel with his earring, hair and no-shave look."
Sampras had not reached the final of a tournament since the U.S. Open, and earlier this month in Paris he lost to a qualifier named Guillaume Raoux. By the time he reached Frankfurt he was nursing shinsplints and seemed demoralized by questions about whether his performance at Flushing Meadow was a fluke. "Being the youngest [male] to win the Open—being part of history—I'm having a tough time coping with that," Sampras said.
The 20-year-old finale of the men's season had come to Germany after 13 years in New York City, where it was called the Masters. Whatever its name, the tournament is most compelling when the No. 1 ranking for the year is at stake. With the four Grand Slam championships having been won by four different players, that was most definitely the case in Frankfurt. Although he wasn't one of the four, the home-standing Boris Becker could have ended up No. 1, provided that he won all of his matches, including the final, and that top-ranked Stefan Edberg did not reach the semifinals. But any suspense ended on Friday, when Edberg qualified for the semis with a 7-5, 6-4 victory over Sampras, rendering Becker's heroic recovery from a badly pulled thigh muscle he suffered on Nov. 4 a nullity. Becker lost 6-2, 6-4 to Agassi in Saturday's semifinals. As it turned out, not a single ranking was changed by anything that happened in Frankfurt, with Edberg finishing in the top spot despite falling 5-7, 7-6, 7-5, 6-2 to the fourth-ranked Agassi in the final. Agassi, who had lost to Edberg in the round-robin, called the victory the "high point" of his turbulent career.
Agassi caused more turbulence last Thursday, when he announced he was withdrawing from the 16-player Grand Slam Cup, a $6 million event scheduled to be played in Munich in December. Agassi had signed a contract to play the Grand Slam Cup—created by the International Tennis Federation, formerly a cosponsor of the tour with the ATP, to upstage the $2 million ATP final—but changed his mind, saying the Cup was an attempt to "deceive the world into thinking it is another big tournament, when it isn't."
The ITF, which still runs the Grand Slam championships, is threatening to fine Agassi and to suspend him from at least one of its 1991 events, which would put the players in the awkward position of having to consider a Grand Slam boycott in support of one of the least-loved members. Then we'll really find out whether the union is a major capitalist tool, or whether the players are just major tools.