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Tennis Facing the Future Without Star From U.S.

The Washington Post

It was 15 months ago that Arthur Ashe, then the U.S. Davis Cup captain, stood on a terrace at Wimbledon, surveying the back courts, and asked: “Where is the next McEnroe?”

The subject was American tennis, and Ashe, noting that John McEnroe was entering his late 20s and Jimmy Connors his mid-30s, was wondering what would happen when the two of them slipped out of the top five. “Right now,” he said at the time, “there’s no one on the horizon who can reach their level.”

Nothing has changed. McEnroe’s career is in jeopardy, his ranking down to 21. Connors, 34, still is hanging on but hasn’t won a tournament in almost two years. And there is no one else.

Brad Gilbert, Tim Mayotte, Paul Annacone, Aaron Krickstein--the second echelon--are just that. Good players, but not great players. None has ever so much as reached a Grand Slam final, much less won one. McEnroe and Connors have won 15 Grand Slam tournaments between them.

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The next computer rankings, when they come out Monday, will summarize the situation well: Connors will be the only American in the top 10. It will mark the first time since the computer rankings were instituted that there have not been at least two Americans in the top 10.

And, as the tennis world gathered here for the U.S. Open, there was considerable concern about U.S. players’ mediocrity--and it was not just among Americans. “Tennis is run by Americans; it is an American sport in every way,” said Mats Wilander, probably the best of the group of top Swedish players in the game today. “It’s very important that there be top Americans. If not, it will kill the interest in the sport. They can live on McEnroe and Connors for a while longer, but it’s important to get someone else soon.”

Ivan Lendl, the Connecticut Czech who is the world’s No. 1 player, agreed. “The sport needs Americans; it needs at least one great one,” he said. “Tennis is international, but it’s also American. I think every aspect of the sport is helped when you have a top American, a guy who has a good chance to win the major tournaments.”

As international as the sport has traditionally been, much of the big money that has made the players rich in the past 15 years is centered in this country. Eighteen of the 34 so-called “super series” tournaments are played in the United States. Many of the top sponsors are American. And NBC--at Wimbledon and the French Open--and CBS--at the U.S. Open--pour huge amounts of money into the game.

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“It’s sort of ironic that, at home, Americans don’t get the kind of support that other guys do in their own countries, yet everyone says the sport needs Americans,” McEnroe said. “I guess it’s true, though. Even if Europeans are rooting against you, they like having you there--even if it’s just to have someone to root against.”

Although the U.S. Open has gotten bigger and richer every year with more and more TV coverage, there is considerable concern within the U.S. Tennis Assn. and among players and TV people that, if a new McEnroe-Connors does not emerge in the near future, that trend will be reversed.

“It would be nice if people came out and appreciated what a player was rather than where he was from,” said Connors. “But that’s not the way it is. You have 20,000 people here, most of them Americans. I think they want to have an American to get behind and pull for. They want to root for one of their own.

“American tennis has been a dynasty for so long that people are used to seeing Americans playing for big titles. If we get to a point where there are no Americans in the quarters, the semis and the finals, it will be a problem. In fact, it would hurt tennis drastically. I think the entire trend of the ‘70s when tennis boomed could go the other way.”

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Connors’ words may seem overly dramatic, but few argue with him. The notable exception is Bud Collins of NBC, who has covered the game for 30 years. “The hard core will always watch tennis on television, regardless of who is playing,” he said. “Do TV people get hysterical if the Americans lose? Yes. But that’s because TV is a hysterical business. Maybe it’s an ideal circumstance to have Americans in the final. But what was a better Wimbledon final to watch, McEnroe-Connors, which was a rout in 1984, or Becker-Curren, which was so compelling in 1985?”

Tennis always has been cyclical: the French were dominant in the 1920s, the English in the ‘30s, the Americans in the ‘40s, the Australians in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the Americans again in the ‘70s and now the Europeans, led by the Swedes.

On the women’s side, there is no such concern because Chris Evert Lloyd is still winning titles, Martina Navratilova is thought of by many as being American and players like Pam Shriver have always been not far behind. But Lloyd is 31, Navratilova will be 30 in October, and Shriver, although only 24, has had a career full of injuries. As with the men, the next echelon--Bonnie Gadusek, Kathy Rinaldi, Zina Garrison and Stephanie Rehe--does not appear to be of the same caliber. They are good, but not great, players.

The next generation’s top women’s players may be Steffi Graf of West Germany and Gabriela Sabatini of Argentina. “There’s a good group behind us but no one has broken out of the pack,” Lloyd said. “You still have players like Rinaldi and Kathy Horvath and then you jump ages and have Mary Joe Fernandez (15), Stephanie Rehe (almost 17) and Melissa Gurney (17). I think Stephie Rehe has a good future ahead of her, but no one has showed the signs of Steffi Graf.”

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But, again, the women’s situation is not yet comparable to the men’s. No American man has won a Grand Slam title since McEnroe won here two years ago. In fact, in the last three Grand Slam tournaments, the only American to even reach the semifinals was Johan Kriek, a naturalized South African. That is a distinct change from 1979, when all four semifinalists here were Americans.

There are still many good American players. Ten of the current top 30 in the world are Americans and 30 of the top 100 are from the United States. But in tennis there is a distinct difference between success and stardom. McEnroe and Connors are still the only stars.

“The game has changed,” said Tom Gullikson, who is a year older than Connors and has lived through the American dynasty. “In the ‘70s, there were more tournaments on grass; courts everywhere were faster. It was a serve-and-volley game. Now, courts are slower everywhere, even here, and it’s more of a back-court game. That’s the European style and they’re the ones that are dominating the game.”

Boris Becker is the exception to that rule. But Becker is just that--an exception in every way. He is so good at such a young age that he cannot be put into any category. Tennis sponsors would love to see McEnroe-Becker become the next great rivalry. It was Connors-Borg, McEnroe-Connors and McEnroe-Borg that gave the game its greatest drama in the past 10 years. In this era, an American almost has to be part of the package.

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“It doesn’t have to be a dynasty,” said Ashe, who began the American era with his U.S. Open victory in 1968. “But the sport needs Americans. Becker is a great personality. He’s very special. But the sport needs the Connors and the McEnroes. People just like to watch them play. It’s that simple.”

The sensitivity of the subject is most noticeable when the second-level Americans are asked if they feel pressured by the void that will be left when McEnroe and Connors are gone. When Mayotte was asked the question recently, he snapped uncharacteristically. “I’m tired of being asked about that,” he said. “I think I do plenty for American tennis. Why do people always ask about it?”

Gilbert even went so far recently as to blame his poor start this year on worrying too much about being the next top U.S. player. “I thought about it too much and it hurt my game,” he said. “Now, I’m just playing for me.”

Which is as it should be. Mayotte is 26, Gilbert 25, Annacone 23. By the time McEnroe was 23, he had won three U.S. Opens and two Wimbledons. Connors had won two Opens, a Wimbledon and an Australian.

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