PARIS -- Tennis is a game of eras, usually defined by the players who dominate them. The Four Musketeers and Suzanne Lenglen of France owned the 1920s, the English much of the 1930s. Then came the Americans, players such as Don Budge and Jack Kramer and Maureen Connolly, followed by the Aussies -- Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, John Newcombe and Margaret Court, to name but a few.
For the most part, the 1970s belonged to the Americans once again, Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith and Billie Jean King giving way to Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Chris Evert, though players such as Evonne Goolagong, Guillermo Vilas and Ilie Nastase had a major impact. One might say that Bjorn Borg was the dominating interloper during those years, but it would be far more accurate to see Borg for what he was: the progenitor to the current era that is strangling men's tennis.
Yes, strangling it. Right now, only Boris Becker stands between the men's game and utter, total boredom. Tennis is a European game today, dominated by Europeans who have copied Borg's conservative, topspinning style of play. If Borg's main challengers for supremacy in the 1970s had been Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander rather than Connors and McEnroe, the game might have died right then.
But tennis entered the 1980s in such robust health that it may survive the current era in spite of itself. The French Open, which ended Sunday with Lendl beating Wilander in a final that should be placed in a time capsule to show future generations what not to do, was rescued only by the women.
While it should be noted that the emergence of Evert spawned a generation of two-fisted backhand base-line metronomes, women's tennis is approaching the end of a truly golden era at the top, the one dominated by Evert and Martina Navratilova. They have been superb competitors, charismatic individuals and outstanding examples for the younger players. When they turn control of the game over to teen-agers Steffi Graf, Gabriela Sabatini and their middle-aged (24) heirs, Hana Mandlikova and Pam Shriver, they will leave it in good health and good hands.
Saturday's Navratilova-Graf final was a joy to watch. It was full of aggressive, attacking tennis, superb shot-making and, at the end, the kind of sportsmanship that exists only in an ideal world.
Men's tennis should be so lucky. Lendl has grown from a superb talent, who often choked or gave up in the clutch, into a true champion. His shot-making in the fourth set tie breaker, under extreme pressure because of the rain and Wilander's belated spurt, was easily the highlight of a dreary match.
But Lendl brings no spark to the game. He is as mechanical in his play as McEnroe was graceful. He is as conservative as Connors was tenacious. When Joakim Nystrom played moonball with Lendl, the champion played moonball. He won the match but it was a sorry sight to see.
His main challengers at the top right now -- putting Becker aside for a moment -- are Wilander, Stefan Edberg and Miloslav Mecir. Each, in his own way, is an artiste. Wilander's game has become less one-dimensional, but he still reverts to serve-and-sleep tennis under pressure. Edberg plays serve-and-volley but has yet to prove he can compete under pressure outside of Australia. And Mecir, totally unpredictable on the court, is defiantly predictable and dull off it.
Without Becker, these four would be the top four players in the game. Not one has the kind of personality on or off the court that breathes life into the game. The true characters -- McEnroe, Connors and the two Frenchmen, Yannick Noah and Henri Leconte -- are, for various reasons, at least one rung below these four right now.
Don't think for a moment that the European domination of the game is going to end any time soon or that an American comeback is imminent. The highest ranked Americans right now are Connors, 34, at No. 7, McEnroe, 28, at No. 8 and Tim Mayotte, 27, at No. 12. Since McEnroe reached the '85 Open final, there have been six Grand Slam tournaments. Twenty-one of 24 semifinalists were Europeans, the three exceptions being Johan Kriek of South Africa at the '86 French and Australians Pat Cash and Wally Masur at the '87 Australian. None won a title and Cash was the only finalist.
The only non-European on the horizon right now who appears to have the potential to crack the top five in the next couple of years (barring a McEnroe comeback) is the hot-tempered Cash.
All of which brings us to Becker. On the broad shoulders of the West German teen-ager -- "still I am not yet 20," he often points out -- rests the future of tennis. As Bud Collins of NBC put it, Becker plays The Game. He attacks, he hits different shots. He dives for balls. He exults in victory and improbable winners.
Becker is fun to watch, fun to listen to and capable of the kind of brilliance on the tennis court that Lendl, for all his fundamental soundness, simply will not produce. Take Becker out of men's tennis right now and what would we have to look forward to at Wimbledon, a Lendl-Edberg final? The English would queue up to get out of that one.
The state of the game was perhaps best summed up during an interminable Lendl-Wilander rally on Sunday. As he watched the ball go back and forth, a member of the English press murmured quietly, "Come back John McEnroe, all is forgiven."