Let's have a moment of respectful and appreciative silence for the passing of clay court pro tennis in Washington after 18 wonderful summers of blood, sweat and tears. Actually, let's make that sweat, sweat and perspiration.
Never again will we be able to watch Guillermo Vilas and Harold Solomon in the finals as they lob moon balls for four hours, trying to bore each other into puddles of evening dew.
Now, with the coming of hard courts to Rock Creek Park, we'll just have to settle for drama like Brad Gilbert's shocking 3-6, 6-3, 6-0 upset of two-time Wimbledon champion Boris Becker yesterday.
Never again will we have to learn to pronounce the names of European and South American clay-court specialists like Jose-Luis Clerc, Martin Jaite, Karel Novacek and Thierry Tulasne when they reach the semifinals.
Instead, we can look up and say, "Isn't that Jimmy Connors?"
Never again will we have to wonder where the best players on earth are hanging their hats during the one week of the year when big-time tennis comes to Washington -- without them.
Now, and in the foreseeable future, we can see Ivan Lendl, Mr. No. 1. As Lendl said this week, when asked what it would take to bring him back next year, "Just a little bit of a stadium and some locker room facilities. But those things are already planned."
Clay-court tennis had its day in Washington. Or was it an eon? Thank heaven it's gone. Speaking as one who watched scores of matches consuming hundreds of hours at 16th and Kennedy streets over the past 18 years, it felt like . . . did I mention an eon? A long eon. Not much in sport is worse than a clay marathon between base liners on a 96-degree day at the Heat Stroke Classic. Victor Pecci symbolized thousands of us who've wanted to say, "Can we go home now, please," when he collapsed from exhaustion in the midst of a tie-breaker and defaulted in the finals in 1979. It's not every event that needs public address announcements to give the crowd tips on how to avoid heat prostration.
Now that the Sovran Bank/D.C. National Tennis Classic -- what a classy catchy name -- has switched from clay to rubberized-asphalt, only one more step in the progression is needed.
Next year, ice.
True, this summer's surface change has trimmed 45 to 60 minutes from the length of the average match and added a world of strategic possibilities. Still, when the temperature is 94 degrees on the street, it's 104 on center court. And a 2-hour 22-minute match, like the one Connors played on Friday, is not exactly a brisk affair.
Ice, on the other hand, would solve all the problems. The bombers like Lendl and Becker, would love the pace. (And you think the bounces on grass are low and quick.) As for clay courters, they could really slide into their ground strokes. It's tough to rally very long on skates, so matches shouldn't take too long. The cool breeze at courtside would save hospital visits. And even promoter Donald Dell, who has four commercial endorsements on each ballboy's shirt, ought to be delighted. We'd learn how many logos you can paste on a Zamboni.
Even if ice isn't feasible, local tennis fans should be delighted at the near certainty that Washington will have an expanded and refurbished 7,000-seat stadium (a 1,500-seat growth) next year to surround their hard courts. This tournament is moving in the right direction. At last, some would say.
Hopefully, future changes won't come as slowly. Before the U.S. Open switched from clay to hard courts in 1978, it was logical for this event to be on clay. Since then, however, Washington has been no trend setter in switching to a faster surface. Cincinnati, Montreal and Stratton Mountain all did it first. Dell has wanted to bring his ProServ clients, like Lendl, Connors and Yannick Noah, here for several years, but only Noah wanted to play on clay.
At the moment, Washington's tennis future is being formed. Opposition still exists to using public park land to expand facilities for a profit-making tournament that is played only one week a year. A few softball fields are in mortal danger. That seems a small enough price to pay for an event that gives $150,000 a year to charity and probably will give $250,000 in the near future.
A major metropolis should be able to afford first-rate facilities for both golf and tennis. The pro golf tour has solved its problem at Avenel, with excellent results. Tennis is structured differently and needs public and corporate contributions. It should be noted, for instance, that locker room conditions here are considered a joke by top players. The likes of Lendl are a little spoiled. But the record crowds, 103,705 this week, weren't asking why he came; they just want him to come back.
For nearly 20 years, Washington has seen too many competent, but less than special players on its final weekend. It's nice to learn about Aaron Krickstein and Jimmy Arias on Wednesday, but Saturday should offer more.
This year, it did. The powerful, though error-filled match between Gilbert and Becker was typical of what top flight tennis can provide. Last year, when Novacek beat Tulasne in the finals, few cared. When Becker collapsed yesterday, then lost the third set at love, the whole tennis world was holding its breath for news on the What's Wrong With Boris front. And what about this Gilbert, an American-born player who actually has shown improvement, climbing in the rankings from 62nd to 23rd to 18th to 11th in 1986. And now this.
Our respectful moment of silence is over now. So, let's tie a tin can to the tail of clay court tennis and send it on its way. Out of town. Hopefully, never to return.