New York Gothic From Ancient Andre's antics to the Battle of the Belgians, we serve up eight plot lines that could make for two bizarre weeks in Flushing Meadow

August 24, 2003

The U.S. Open is New York City writ small. It has the buzz and
bustle of Grand Central Terminal at rush hour and the tacky
commercialism of Times Square. The fans can be as indecorous as
Howard Stern, and as savvy as the handicappers at Belmont Park.
The screech of the number 7 train and the whoosh of planes taking
off from nearby LaGuardia Airport provide the soundtrack. There
are as many upsets as there are potholes on the Brooklyn-Queens
Expressway and, befitting the city that never sleeps, matches
last past the witching hour. Players either get amped by the
electricity of the event or founder in the ambient chaos.

And that's in a normal year. Tennis fans can scarcely contemplate
the twists that await the 2003 Open, which begins on Monday. This
has been a year notable for its absurdity, as a few snapshots
from last week illustrate: Despite never having won a Grand Slam
singles title, Kim Clijsters inherited the top ranking on the WTA
Tour (largely because of Serena Williams's inactivity) and
promptly lost to little-known Lina Krasnoroutskaya in the third
round of the Canadian Open. That upset suddenly left 46-year-old
Martina Navratilova as the star attraction as she won her fifth
doubles title this year. Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, the top-ranked
player and oldest participant in the event, Andre Agassi, 33,
withdrew at the last minute and faced a $60,000 fine. Then
Lleyton Hewitt, until recently the most consistent player over
the past two years, lost for the third time in four matches, in
the first round.

As the two congenitally antic tours converge on an inherently
frazzled Open, divining a winner is well-nigh impossible. We can,
however, provide a few plotlines to follow during a tournament
that promises to bury the needle on the bizarre-o-meter.

1 No Defending Champs

For the first time since 1971 neither the men's nor the women's
defending champion will be playing. Since his emotional title run
last year, Pete Sampras hasn't played a competitive match and has
given little indication that he ever will again. (Sources close
to Sampras say he is considering making a formal retirement
announcement during the Open.) In winning five of the last six
majors, including last year's Open, Serena Williams was trumping
the competition like no player since Steffi Graf. But barely
three weeks after winning Wimbledon, she abruptly underwent knee
surgery and, to the delight of the rest of the field, will be out
of action for at least another month.

2 Whither Venus?

Conventional wisdom would suggest that in Serena's absence, Venus
Williams would be the favorite to win the Open, as she did in
2000 and 2001. But tennis doesn't do convention. Since losing to
Serena for a sixth straight time, at Wimbledon, Venus (hampered
by a strained abdominal muscle) hasn't played a match. (Not that
she is alone: Each of the top nine American women has withdrawn
from at least one event this summer because of injury.) Even if
she competes in Flushing Meadow--as SI went to press on Monday
she was still entered--Venus will be seeded only No. 4. Since her
little sister surpassed her, Williams the Elder has looked
decidedly vulnerable, her swagger reduced to a slouch, her smiles
few and far between. Those sounds you just heard were shrieks of
horror coming from CBS executives as they ponder the ratings of a
prime-time final between Justine Henin-Hardenne and Amelie
Mauresmo.

3 Depth of Characters

You think still waters run deep? Check out the men's tour: 29
players have won tournaments this year. "Anyone can beat anyone,"
says Roger Federer, the ubertalented Wimbledon champ who had to
save seven match points in the first round in Cincinnati before
prevailing against No. 114 Scott Draper. (Federer lost his next
match, to No. 14 David Nalbandian.) The good news: Overall the
men's game has never been played at a higher level, and matches
have never been more competitive. The bad news? The parity makes
it hard for fans (and networks) to gain familiarity with players.

4 Battling Belgians

Yes, it sounds like a Dutch comic's punch line, but it's no joke.
In June two Belgians, Clijsters and the diminutive
Henin-Hardenne, met in the French Open final. That two players
from a country of just 10 million could reach the sport's
pinnacle was a source of such national pride that their king and
queen flew to Paris to attend the match. Now the two players are
on the verge of a civil war. In the final of the San Diego event
earlier this month, Clijsters objected to Henin-Hardenne taking a
timeout after losing the first set and, after the match, accused
her countrywoman of faking an injury and "disrespecting" the
sport. To which Henin-Hardenne groused, "She was disappointed she
lost. That's the only reason she's saying this." It wasn't the
first time this year that opponents have accused Henin-Hardenne
of traversing the line between gamesmanship and unsportsmanlike
conduct. Her take? The 5'5", 126-pound Henin-Hardenne surmises
that the bigger players "don't like to see me running all over
the court and having power, too. Mentally, it's hard for them to
compete against me."

5 Lleyton Tendencies

Hewitt, the 2001 U.S. Open champion and the most intense
competitor since Jimmy Connors, has unaccountably lost his edge.
Mediocre since March, he has fallen to inferior players,
squandered match points and shown little of his trademark fire.
Hewitt has a chip on his shoulder the size of Arthur Ashe Stadium
and uses what New Yorkers call agita as his fuel. But after so
many on-and off-court battles--his fatuous lawsuit against the
ATP for defamation is still pending--he appears to be running on
empty.

6 The Young and the Restless

In the wake of Jennifer Capriati's epic burnout a decade ago, the
WTA instituted age-eligibility rules restricting the number of
tournaments that players under 18 can enter. As the women's game
thrived, the rules went largely unchallenged. Now, with the
tour's glamorous cast breaking up Friends-like and management
groups desperate to capitalize on the Next Big Thing, that could
change. If, say, 16-year-olds Maria Sharapova and Carly
Gullickson make waves at the Open, the rules may be given early
retirement. Speaking of which....

7 Retiring Personalities

If Sampras calls it quits, he'll be in good company. Martina
Hingis is unlikely to play again. Ditto Michael Chang, whose
farewell tour will, mercifully, end in New York. Anna
Kournikova's handlers claim that a back injury may prevent her
from playing singles again. It would surprise no one if the Open
serves as a last hurrah for Lindsay Davenport and Todd Martin.
Then there is the peculiar case of Agassi. He's older than any of
the aforementioned players yet unquestionably can still compete
on the highest level. But with a wife and son at home and another
child due in November, who knows how long tennis will be a
priority.

8 Labor Pains

The ATP, WTA, USTA and ITF have long been concerned with
protecting their various fiefdoms (often at the expense of the
game), but now there's an additional fly in the alphabet soup.
During Wimbledon the ATP intimated that the men could boycott a
future Grand Slam event if the four majors didn't "invest more
significantly in professional tennis." (Read: Pay us more.) True,
something is awry when the USTA devotes only 9% of gross revenues
to U.S. Open prize money, as opposed to the 40% of revenue that
run-of-the-mill events disburse. But the boycott threat is as
ill-timed as it is hollow--at least as long as a first-round
loser will make more than $10,000 at the Open--and the ATP has
since dialed back the rhetoric. "We're developing common ground
and think we can work out creative solutions," Mark Miles, the
ATP's CEO, said last week of ongoing negotiations.

Perhaps order will emerge from so much chaos. Andy Roddick, for
instance, is a fair bet to win his first Slam. He has been the
best player in the world since Wimbledon and, after retaining
Brad Gilbert as his coach in June, has shown the patience during
a match that escaped him in the past. "I feel," says Roddick,
"like I've become a pretty complete player." That would also
describe Federer, a stylist who plays with casual efficiency,
moves with grace and has an expansive selection of shots. If he
can consolidate his Wimbledon breakthrough by winning in New
York, men's tennis will have a big-time star on its hands. Agassi
could also hijack the Open crowd, much as Connors did 12 years
ago at 39. If Agassi continues his defiant refusal to act his
age, he could well be the king of Queens for the third
time--which would still be two fewer Open titles than his
painstakingly private wife won. (Steffi no doubt will be cheering
her husband from a faraway corner of the stadium.)

As for the women, perhaps the preclusion of another
Williams-Williams final is a disguised blessing. In the case of
the sisters, we know all too well that familiarity doesn't breed
contempt; it breeds awkward, arrhythmic matches. If top-seeded
Clijsters can win her first major and legitimize her ranking, the
sport will be better for it. If the feisty No. 2 seed
Henin-Hardenne takes the top prize, she becomes the player to
beat on the tour--and she'll really psyche out the bigger
players.

For now, however, that's just speculation. Here's what we do
know: When it comes to tennis's signature event in America,
there's truth in advertising. The U.S. Open, at least in this
madcap year, is as open as open gets.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY DANIEL ADEL BIG DADDY He's 33, with a wife, a son and a baby on the way, but Agassi won't go gentle into the Open's good nights.

Hewitt has fallen to inferior players, SQUANDERED MATCH POINTS
and shown little of his trademark fire.

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)