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  The Grandest Slam of All

By Bud Collins
Special to the Washington Post
Sunday, January 18, 1998; Page D11

MELBOURNE, Australia, Jan. 17 — In the past, when you talked about the Grand Slam quartet, the Australian Open used to be merely the little pond in the globe's basement. Until 10 years ago, anyway, when a couple of big fish—Steffi Graf and Mats Wilander—christened the brand new, mint green, flip-top stadium at Flinders Park while becoming champions of the revived tourney that many now consider the best of the lot. None of the incessant downpours of Wimbledon, raw chill of the French or the overpriced, far-off seats of the U.S. Open.

It's high summer in the charming, park-splashed city of Melbourne where in shorts, T-shirts and halter-tops—deeply layered in sunscreen—you may easily stroll to the riverside tennis parlor from anywhere downtown. Rainouts have been banished by the 15,000-seat center court's retractable ceiling, and a family of four can get in any day during the first week—it's school vacation time—for $25. The outer court reaches are roomy, tickets no hassle. "The most fan friendly of the four, my favorite," observes Boston lawyer Ronald Sampson, who has sampled all the Grand Slam venues.

"It's pretty relaxed, all right, and I've always liked it. People don't bother you much," says No. 1 Pete Sampras, the reigning champion who also won in 1994. Aussies admire Sampras, who has tried to model himself after their modest, strong-and-silent greats Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall. But he's also stalking the record of one of their own, Roy Emerson, whose 12 major singles titles Pete dearly wants to surpass.

There are patriots who would hate to see Pete, holder of 10 majors (four each U.S. and Wimbledon, two Aussie), remove Emerson from the record book, where he's been since 1967.

"Pete'll go way beyond me, and more power to him," says Emerson, 61, over the phone from Miami, where he's a teaching pro. "He's a truly great champion. I've had the record long enough. Didn't even know I had it until lately, people talking about Pete breaking it. We weren't much for records in my day."

Interest centers not so much on Sampras or the other defender, Martina Hingis, but on Australia's greatest hunk since Dundee killed his first crocodile: No. 2 Patrick Rafter, the man who restored the island's tennis respectability by winning the U.S. Open. Everybody loves Rafter, and now he's starting to feel hemmed in by attention and expectations.

"Bloody hard to go out in public any more, and you know I like to be with people," says Rafter, who flunked his September Davis Cup test in Washington against Sampras and Michael Chang. Seeded second behind Sampras, Rafter leads off in what could be anything but a routine match against the provocative California lefty, Jeff Tarango. "May have a few surprises for him," said Tarango. Sampras has a tougher-than-usual opener: Dutchman Scheng Schalken, who won a tournament in Boston last summer, and so does the only other seeded American, No. 3 Chang, against swift Danish lefty Kenneth Carlsen.

But the Williams sisters are cruisin' here, too. Florida teenagers Venus and Serena are unseeded but hardly unnoticed. Startling U.S. Open finalist Venus, 17, and Serena, 16, were sensations in the Sydney tuneup. Venus beat world No. 1 Hingis and got to a title bout loss to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, and Serena toppled U.S. best Lindsay Davenport. Unfortunately, they'll collide in the second round if Serena beats Irina Spirlea and Venus stops Alexia Dechaume-Balleret. But they seem ready to be predators in their migratory school.

Bud Collins is a columnist for the Boston Globe and a tennis commentator for NBC.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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