Michael Wilbon

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U.S. at Net Loss in Foreign Exchange

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, September 4, 1997; Page C1

NEW YORK Everybody's having a marvelous time here at the U.S. Open. The Spaniards, the Brits, the South Americans, the Swiss. Even the Romanians, as Ilie Nastase says he's more excited over countrywoman Irina Spirlea making it to the semifinals than he ever was as a player. It's a big international playground, bubbling over with multiple languages. Only one group of people seems not be having a good time.

The Americans.

Why not? Because we don't have enough players left, particularly on the men's side of the tournament. All over the grounds, people of various nationalities rush from court to court to see good tennis: juniors, doubles and mixed doubles. The Americans, regardless or race or gender, wonder aloud if Venus Williams can "save" the tournament, as if it's going to expire. We ask, naively, if CBS will still show the men's final if Michael Chang is eliminated beforehand.

You want the definition of "Ugly American?" All you have to do is walk the ground in Flushing Meadows. Anybody who looks like a total sourpuss is one of ours.

It started Monday night when Great American Hope Pete Sampras was upset by Czech Petr Korda, then took an ugly turn Tuesday afternoon when Monica Seles one of ours for a few years now was knocked off by Spirlea, and hit absolute rock bottom at a few minutes before 1 o'clock Wednesday morning when Andre Agassi bit the dust in a rather entertaining four-setter against Australian Patrick Rafter. Not only did we lose the best Americans, but we lost the stars, and, of course, the only thing Americans care more about than themselves is celebrities.

There's a perception, growing exponentially, that tennis is dead. It must be because Tony "Cat Gut" Kornheiser said so. There's no interest, no personalities, no stars, no passion.

But to steal a line from Don King, I'd say that applies Only In America.

Tennis seems to be alive and well in the rest of the world. Even interesting.

Just because Americans are bored with tennis doesn't mean everybody else is, or that the tennis being played here is flawed or bad. CBS may indeed be in trouble because 99 percent of U.S. sports fans at least those outside of the tennis community couldn't identify Jonas Bjorkman or Greg Rusedski if $1 billion was at stake.

It was exactly 2 a.m. Wednesday at a 24-hour deli in midtown when a certain prominent tennis pro from Montgomery County said with great passion, "I really want to see that Korda-Bjorkman match tomorrow" and he was dead serious. The Post's Jennifer Frey and I looked at each other like we were hallucinating. And it wasn't until later that it dawned on me that Korda-Bjorkman just might be a great match. Better than watching Sampras-anybody. You know who's contributing to this we-are-the-world mentality? None other than John McEnroe, who on the air during the interminable Agassi-Rafter match sarcastically said, "No one will dare leave early tomorrow night during that Korda-Bjorkman match!"

As a tennis sycophant, the one thing I know is that here at the Open there have been fabulous players all over the grounds the past 10 days. The crowd here, understandably, rooted with everything it had until way past midnight for Agassi. But you know what? Rafter at this point in his career is a much better player. Much better. He's a stone-cold serve-and-volley player who got to the semis at the French Open and could cause Americans some uncomfortable moments in two weeks when he leads Australia against the United States in Davis Cup play on 16th Street. Rafter is like a second coming of Pat Cash, big and reckless and sort of swashbuckling.

Why should I care more about Agassi, who half the time doesn't seem to care anymore? Because he's married to Brooke Shields and appears in People magazine all the time? The fact that we bought into the possibility of Agassi winning the U.S. Open this year was pretty stupid in the first place. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big Agassi fan and I'm not about to suggest that at 27 he's washed up if he still wants to play. But the fact that he lost in the first round of just about every tournament he played this year, plus had an injured wrist, meant he wasn't tournament tough and wasn't going to win seven matches here. There wasn't a chance of it. But we bought the tease, the U.S. media, the fans, the corporate sponsors, probably CBS, and even Sampras, who, after he lost, anointed Agassi as a favorite.

Asked about his immediate future, Agassi said: "Well, I don't know in the tennis level what is on the agenda. To be honest, my mind hasn't been set here. I really don't know what I am doing, truly. But be assured that it will be in the best interest of my game plan to come back and play well next year."

Obviously, the obsession with Agassi has a lot to do with Sampras dominating the men's game. Tennis needs rivalries. We got so accustomed to the great rivalries of the '70s and '80s that we're still stuck there: Borg-Connors, Borg-McEnroe, Connors-McEnroe, McEnroe-Lendl, Chrissie-Martina. And, you'll notice, there was always an American involved. So there was no coincidence whatsoever that tennis enjoyed it's American boom during that stretch.

It's too bad we have to be so narrow-minded about this. Our acceptance of great but locally unknown players isn't going to change all of a sudden because I want it to. But there used to be a saying that went, "If you can't fight it, switch." I'm going out right now to watch Bjorkman play Korda, and damn it, I plan to like it.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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