SPOILED SPORT AMID THE POMP OF THE U.S. OPEN, TENNIS SQUANDERED A CHANCE TO SHED ITS ELITIST IMAGE

September 07, 1997

Last week the U.S. Tennis Association unveiled Arthur Ashe
Stadium, the new centerpiece of the U.S. Open, with fireworks
and sweet words. Intended to pay tribute to a racial pioneer,
the dedication ceremony instead boiled down to a battle between
two spirits: Arthur's and The Donald's. Guess who won?

This was, it seemed, one of those can't-miss opportunities for a
flailing sport: a nationally televised, once-in-a-lifetime
chance for tennis to draw new fans and cloak itself in
multiracial glory. The Reverend Desmond Tutu, Whitney Houston
and Tony Bennett showed up, as well as 37 winners of the U.S.
men's or women's championship from all over the globe. Also
there, standing at the front of his $85,000 luxury box while
virtually everyone else in the stadium sat--his hair aswirl,
permascowl in place, thumbs hooked in his belt--was billionaire
Donald Trump. He looked as if he owned the place.

There were nice moments. Jeanne Moutoussammy-Ashe spoke of her
husband's life, Houston sang, Don Budge nobly limped onto the
court. But The Donald glowered throughout, and it was impossible
for the event to resist his powerboy aura: The moneyed crowd was
hardly the audience Ashe hoped to bring to tennis, and his
selfless example was lost on the biggest-name American players.
Jimmy Connors was playing elsewhere and sent no word. Andre
Agassi bolted the grounds before the ceremonies began, and Pete
Sampras, in the dressing room preparing for a first-round match,
couldn't be bothered to step outside for a simple wave. "They
should've been out there," says Mark Miles, the USTA's chief
executive officer.

Well, yes, but such public relations embarrassments are the risk
you run in a game smaller than the athletes who play it. Tennis
has always been crippled by the antics of a spoiled few who, no
matter their backgrounds, too often end up reinforcing the
sport's elitist image. Sensing that the grand opening of the
$254 million show palace did nothing to dispel that, the USTA
three days later announced a $31.4 million drive to attract
800,000 new players over the next five years.

This move, too, was laden with Donaldism. Big numbers were
thrown around, but few specifics: The USTA will target 20 cities
to blitz with ads and coaching grants and equipment, but no
tennis official could name any of the 20 or explain how the
money would be doled out. Though the sport's ills are hardly a
secret, no official would even acknowledge that those ills were
the reason for the program. It was like announcing a Marshall
Plan without admitting there was a World War II. The whole
exercise came off as both laudable and yet beside the point.

The fact is, tennis has never been "saved" from the ground up.
None of the stars of the past or present came out of any
grassroots effort; they emerged from families with the drive and
resources to send a Chris Evert onto the court every day. The
tennis boom of the 1970s was a trickle-down affair, not vice
versa.

Such dependence on personality has been tennis's curse and
blessing since the open era began, and nothing will change that.
The sport's eternal good news, of course, is that with all the
mourning about the old days, it takes only a few compelling
faces to bring them right back. The bad news is that when
personalities dry up, tennis does too--no matter how well it's
played. Today's game is more competitive, more powerful than
ever, but the sport is nothing like its country-club cousin,
golf. People watch the Masters no matter who's playing. Few
tennis nuts are trying to pick up tips off TV.

No, this is a sport always waiting for Andre (above). The men's
game has been in a deep freeze since Agassi's recent flameout
and dogged by incessant questions about his comeback. The
women's tour had dropped into limbo, too. Who would be the next
diva? Who had that elusive mix of charisma, talent and mystery
that lands a guest shot on MTV? Agassi got a legion of balding
white men to shave their heads and grow bad goatees. Women's
tennis was waiting for its version. Waiting for its Andre.

Last week they both showed up. Venus Williams sailed into the
Open's second week, shaking her beaded braids, seducing the
cameras with her quirky exuberance. Agassi rolled through the
early rounds, with TV ratings jumping 75% when he played his
first match. He dubbed the hue of his shirt "hard pink," and
just like that the color got hot. Men of a certain age eyed
their razors. These were vital signs. For the moment, tennis
lived.

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN [Andre Agassi playing tennis]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)