Year after year the men's tennis tour alights here and -- despite sugar-coated promises -- deposits what the Statue of Liberty might have in mind as she welcomes "the wretched refuse of your teeming shore."
Year after year I write about this phenomenon, amazed that promoter Donald Dell, the octopus of tennis -- the only man who orders his sweatsuits with eight arms -- can't get a better field. (You think he's ever tempted to enter clients P. Ewing-M. Jordan in the doubles?)
Year after year the truths of Washington sports are:
The Sovran Bank Classic is bad.
The Kemper Open is worse.
Eventually Kelvin Bryant goes on IR.
So pay attention because this is new:
This is a good field. Congratulations.
(There, being nice wasn't so hard, was it? And for being a good boy you can have an extra herbed wedge of brie, or more westphalian ham . . . WHAT? They're not selling those fantastically chi-chi items on baguettes this year? Gosh, we really must be on the verge of a recession. Thank heaven we can still get a pair of Andre Agassi denim shorts for a mere $47.)
Okay, you're not going to get Edberg, he plays the European circuit. You're not going to get Becker, he takes two weeks off after Wimbledon. You're not going to get Lendl; he had a terrible falling out with Dell's ProServ a few years ago, and they sued each other; Kate and Allie, they ain't.
But if you rubbed the magic Ellesse genie, and he gave you three wishes for your midsummer tennis tournament, and you took note that it was in the capital of the United States, you'd have to wish for Agassi, McEnroe and Chang.
Poof. You've got them.
Forget the rankings, these are three American players you want to see. Give it a rest with Jimbo already, he's going to be 38. Krickstein? Oh, please! As a bonus, you get Brad Gilbert, No. 6 in the world, and Tim Mayotte.
The torpor was supposed to vanish when the tournament shifted from clay to hard court. (On clay, six of the last eight players left were from Chile; Chile would have won the Davis Cup if it played in Rock Creek Park. The promoter used to insist fans loved the long, artful rallies until maintenance men pointed out the fans weren't actually alive, they'd been bored to death and were propped up like El Cid.) When the first years of hard courts attracted similar lackluster fields, the promoter's rationale was that people should be grateful for this chance to see lots of fresh, unspoiled talent (translation: three-quarters of the draw has a ranking higher than the UHF stations on your satellite dish). You hold a tournament in the dog days, it shouldn't surprise you if Spuds McKenzie is the fourth seed. (He would have been sixth last year, but Jimbo and McEnroe bailed out just after their names got plastered to the sides of every commuter bus between here and York, Pa.)
Finally, we have a tournament worthy of the tennis interest in the area. Oh sure there are excesses. The top ticket of $46 is outrageous, particularly when the top at the U.S. Open is $40. Claiming it's a show of good faith to the fans to hold the line at $46 is a little much -- McCartney tickets cost $30, and nobody had to worry he wouldn't perform because Eliot Teltscher upset him in the third song. Fila sweatsuits are going for $240. I asked a saleswoman in the clothing tent what $2 would get me? She said, "Water, if you're lucky." Actually, water is $1.25 for 6 1/2 oz. of Perrier; benzene's extra. You can probably get domestic water, but you'll feel silly drinking from a hose.
So let's feel good about this tournament for a change. These are three BIG names. Chang is a courageous player, the only American male to win a Grand Slam event in the last six years. McEnroe is a tormented genius -- genuine spectacle, win or lose. The day he was officially confirmed as an entrant, ticket sales jumped 30 percent. Agassi should be fresh, having skipped Wimbledon, obviously to prepare for this. ("You think you ought to play Wimbledon, Andre? Lots of players think it's important." "And not be at my peak for the Sovran? Are you nuts?") In some ways Agassi is this generation's McEnroe: compelling, self-absorbed, reviled by traditionalists for shabby manners (shunning Wimbledon), adored by the young for his style, and cast as an anti-establishment hero. An Agassi-McEnroe final would be the most tumultuous event in American tennis since Lendl got his green card.
Last year Paul Annacone, who was once ranked in the top 20 for a half-hour, said Washington had to give players better perks to get them to come here. You know: theater tickets, better courtesy cars, dinner with the president (nothing formal, though, Le Coq Sportif doesn't give anything in black tie), 30 percent off at Wild World. Apparently tennis players, teenage millionaires who are already coddled like Gerber babies, will decide which tournaments they'll play based on the catalogue of discount coupons. ("Andre, you want to play Wimbledon next year?" "Can I get a lava-colored Rolls-Royce courtesy car and free shirts at Harrods?") All these years I thought it was the heat and humidity keeping players away from Washington. Now I see it was the lack of a free bacon cheeseburger at Burger King. To sweeten the pot, tournament director Josh Ripple arranged for a goodie bag of baseball equipment for the players this year. Who knows if players were influenced by this, but our misbegotten midsummer tournament seems finally to have gotten a clean hit.