With Net Losses Galore, By Tony Kornheiser
Tennis Is Getting Teed Up
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, June 24, 1997; Page E 1
Wimbledon began yesterday amid all the traditional pomp and ceremony—the long queues of people waiting hours to buy tickets for the deep green, wooden seats of Centre Court, the enticing possibility of spotting royals in the Royal Box, the overpriced strawberries and clotted cream.
Wimbledon has always been the most special tennis tournament of all.
It's too bad tennis is dead now.
Dead. Mort. Finis. Fuhgeddaboutit.
Tiger Woods pushed it over a cliff.
Remember how 20 years ago they were building indoor tennis courts all over the place, and you'd see the bubbles spring up like giant mushrooms? You don't see those bubbles any more, do you? Remember how hard it was to schedule court time? You can get court time any time you want now.
What you can't get is a tee time.
Tennis is no longer chic—and chic is what propelled it.
The men with their pastel cable-stitched sweaters tied loosely around their necks; the women with their Euro-mode Ellesse outfits and their diamond tennis bracelets; the care they took in dressing for the tennis matches. That's done. They've moved on. They're hanging around the 16th green now, puffing on cigars and wearing Ashcroft. Golf is the chic sport now, Muffy; wake up and smell the macanudos.
Twenty years ago was a high-water mark for tennis. Chris Evert had emphatically taken over from Billie Jean King, and Martina Navratilova was establishing herself as Evert's top challenger. The men's draw had entered a golden age of star power with Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors dominating the sport—and 1977 was the year unseeded teenager John McEnroe went all the way to the Wimbledon semifinals. All that lay ahead of tennis was blue skies and flat road.
But we've come to the end of that road. Tennis is a two-week-a-year sport in the United States now: The second week of Wimbledon, and the second week of the U.S. Open. There's no compelling reason to watch it any other time. For what, the Gstaad Open? The Rock Creek Park Where The Names On The Bus Disappear In The Second Round Classic?
The winners of the French Open—a major no less—were Gustavo Kuerten and Iva Majoli. Exactly who are they? Principal dancers in the Bolshoi Ballet?
Here's the problem with tennis: There aren't enough stars.
Do you know who won Wimbledon last year?
I rest my case.
Let's take the men. Pete Sampras is a fine fellow and an excellent player. He'll leave his blood and guts on the court—and as we saw in last year's U.S. Open, sometimes he'll leave his lunch out there too. But who is there to rival Sampras and ennoble him the way Borg did Connors and McEnroe did Borg? Boris Becker will turn 30 this fall; injuries and burnout have reduced Becker after a decade of prominence. Andre Agassi, who should have been Sundance to Sampras's Butch, treats tennis like a summer job in his post-Brooke era; maybe Andre should become a lifeguard. Michael Chang? Chang's game isn't large enough. Jim Courier or Michael Stich? They're toast. Goran Ivanisevic? What's he won? Mark Philippoussis? (Wow, that makes the name Kornheiser seem like Smith.) He has Nolan Ryan heat on his serve, but is he more than a one-trick pony?
It's Sampras by default. He's a gentleman, a champion, a role model.
But a star?
The women's side of the draw is in worse shape. In the last few years it has been devastated. Navratilova retired. Monica Seles, who was so carefree and blithe, was stabbed. She has returned, but she hasn't returned to championship form—and she certainly hasn't returned with that exuberant Valley Girl personality that made her so popular. Jennifer Capriati, who was supposed to be the next Chrissie, had quote teenage problems unquote, and barely leaves a footprint in tournaments anymore. Crowd-pleasing Gabriela Sabatini retired. And now Steffi Graf, who was a warrior champion for so long even under the burden of her father's sordid life, has a bad knee, and she'll be out for the rest of this year at least.
That leaves the immediate fate of women's tennis resting on 16-year-old Martina Hingis—who's so young that she's named for Martina Navratilova—and hoping for the emergence of 16-year-old Venus Williams, who so far is better known for her beaded hairstyle than her game. The first time a 16-year-old caused a big stir was 1971, when Evert came out of nowhere and reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open as an amateur. But the American public isn't clamoring for Hingis (or Williams) the way it clamored for Chrissie, with her pigtails and ribbons. Since then, from Tracy Austin through Andrea Jaeger, Graf, Capriati, Seles and now Hingis, 16-year-old phenoms have become commonplace.
And don't get me started about the senior tennis tour. Who wants to watch these altakokkas? Senior golf is bad enough—and those guys aren't running after golf balls. Spare me the sight of Bjorn Borg in middle age, his ponytail graying, laboring crosscourt.
Perhaps there is a rocket out there waiting to be launched, a Tiger Woods, a Ken Griffey Jr., a Brett Favre who compels you to watch. It would be nice if he or she were an American, because as tennis drifts globally it runs the risk of becoming like track—a sport more honored outside the United States than in it. An American star, a new Connors, a new Evert, might regenerate the sport here, and prompt it to anchor here like the golf tour.
One problem tennis has is that there doesn't seem to be anything you can do to amplify the game, to jazz it up for the X-generation. Statistics don't help explain tennis like they do baseball; you'll never make "unforced errors" into ERA. It doesn't have the collision of football or the speed of hockey or the choreography of basketball. And right now it doesn't have the cachet of golf.
Tennis is in a bind. It's almost primitive compared to other sports, like Pong to Nintendo 64. It can't add a three-point shot, or a penalty box. It has to wait for some charismatic star to transport it. That could be tomorrow, or after the millennium. In the meantime, get that slow group ahead of me off the green, I'm ready to hit.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post
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