La Quinta : Field Now Even Shorter on Names

Times Staff Writer

The $375,000 Pilot Pen tennis tournament, otherwise known as Jimmy Connors and a Cast of Dozens, got some rather upsetting news Tuesday.

Upsets.

Promoters have advertised this event as Wimbledon West, the richest tournament in the Western United States and the most beautiful week in tennis. But when all the hype is stripped away, the tournament comes up lacking in one critical commodity--name talent.

Connors is here and that's about it. Yannick Noah, Jimmy Arias, Vitas Gerulaitis and Eliot Teltscher--who all played in last year--are missing for various reasons. Names are at a premium and Tuesday, the field got plowed under a little more.

Four seeded players, including No. 4 Johan Kriek and No. 11 Guillermo Vilas, were eliminated by people named Benhabiles, Schwaier, Pfister and Stefanki.

One by one, here's how they left:

--Kriek, whose inconsistent game is again on the downswing, was knocked off in straight sets, 6-1, 7-5, by a skinny, 20-year-old Frenchman named Takir Benhabiles.

--Vilas, once ranked No. 1 in the world and still a marquee attraction at age 32, lost to West German Hans Schwaier, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4.

--Juan Aguilera, receiving a first-round bye after being seeded No. 7, lost in the second round against No. 193-ranked Larry Stefanki, 7-6, 2-6, 7-5.

--And John Fitzgerald, the U.S. Open doubles champion, Australian Davis Cupper and La Quinta's 13th seeded player, was ousted, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, by 31-year-old Hank Pfister.

These are not developments the promoters had hoped for, especially so early in the tournament.

"Naturally, you'd like to have all the name players advance, because you want to sell tickets," tournament director Charlie Pasarell said. "But we're OK in ticket sales the way it is.

"Last week (at the $1.8-million tournament in Delray Beach, Fla.), there were many upsets, also. Maybe that's becoming the trend."

All right. On to the who-are-these-guys winners.

Benhabiles, who scored the day's biggest stunner, goes first. Born in Algiers, Algeria, he moved to France when he was 10, learning tennis in the highly structured system that produced Henri Leconte, Guy Forget and Thierry Tulasne. Benhabiles is ranked fifth in France, behind those three and Noah.

He's slight (5-9, 132 pounds), which may be his biggest asset. Benhabiles has a deceptively strong serve--he scored eight aces against Kriek.

The element of surprise certainly worked against Kriek.

"Nowadays in tournaments, 60-70% of the draw, you don't even know," Kriek said. "You come out for the first round and play someone you've never played before. It takes awhile to get used to the way they play.

"When I was 20, 21, I was knocking off the top seeds and becoming a star. Now, it seems there are a lot more new stars. That's all there is to it."

Kriek also grumbled about the officiating, claiming the number of questionable calls in the second set disturbed his rhythm, one reason why he blew a 4-1 lead.

But Benhabiles also contributed. "He played pretty damn well," Kriek said. "His serve surprised me. There were very few things that I was doing great."

Benhabiles said he never played better.

"This is my biggest win, yes," he said. "I knew he likes to run around and end the points quickly, so I decided to stay back and hit a lot of balls. I wanted to make him impatient."

Looking on was French Davis Cup captain Jean-Paul Loth, who apparently was duly impressed. Immediately after the match, he offered Benhabiles a spot on the French team.

The afternoon's other shocker was Schwaier over Vilas. Both play the same style game--from the baseline, with patience--but few have ever played it as well as Vilas.

What's more, Schwaier was stricken with leg cramps late in the third set, when his 4-1 lead turned into a 4-4 tie.

But Schwaier persevered. He finally relieved the cramps by laying on his back during timeouts and waggling his legs in the air. Then, he strutted back onto the court and wrested the final two games from Vilas.

Afterward, Vilas blamed the court--or rather the difference in speed between the practice courts and the stadium court, where the match was played. "This court was slow, which should be perfect for me," Vilas said. "I should play great.

"But the courts I practiced on were faster. I should have practiced on the center court."

Vilas also didn't much care for the officiating. One call, in particular, hurt him. Leading in the second set, 4-3, Vilas was assessed a penalty point for delaying play. Schwaier went on to break Vilas there and win the next three games to force a third set.

"The ball boy forgot to bring me water," Vilas said. "Then, somebody (in the stands) was moving. I was thinking about what was happening. Should you get a jail term for that?"

Schwaier took advantage of the small break and turned it into a big upset.

But on this day, that was nothing extraordinary. Just part of the agenda.

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