TENNIS / ELLIOTT ALMOND : Maybe the Image Is Everything

Almost anyone who has swung a racquet during the French Open the past two weeks has been queried about the state of their sport. The questions have been legitimate, what with the women's game missing Monica Seles and any element of drama. Even Mary Pierce's ascent at Roland Garros does little to ensure the game's resurrection until she proves her mettle over the years.

The image of the men's game also is suffering although this Grand Slam tournament has given us some new faces to talk about.

Which is nice. Because, really, it is becoming tiresome listening to some of the old hands.

In this category, Jim Courier, the avowed new man, ranks No. 1. No one can criticize his powerful, determined game. He is a lovely player whose work ethic is unsurpassed.

But his boorish behavior off the court only hurts the game that has given him so much. He claims to have brought a "sunny new disposition" to Paris this year, but mostly he has been his taciturn self.

After winning his second French Open two years ago, Courier was asked by a young local radio reporter to speak French for her audience. After all, Courier had just thanked the Center Court crowd for their support in French, and prides himself on his language skill. But he was defiant in refusing her simple request.

He acts as if the world is against him, and such an attitude does little to enhance the game that could use some help. He has been telling us that he has changed, and is much happier because of it.

"I decided I was tried of being the angry young man," said Courier, who lost to Sergi Bruguera of Spain in Friday's semifinals. "I've let the mask down and shown the real person. This is the way I am."

But it seems he is struggling with this nice-guy image as caustic remarks continue to lace his interview sessions. And that's too bad for a game that is trying to sustain interest and develop personalities.

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Andrei Medvedev of the Ukraine is a rising star who is proof that for all the game's flaws, tennis remains a fun and intriguing sport. He wears a mischievous smile that endears him to the younger fans. He actually looks as if he enjoys himself during matches.

But the 20-year-old must be careful not to follow many of the big-named stars, who seem to let fame and fortune go to their heads.

Medvedev lacks Courier's training ethic and maturity, but not his oracle skills.So, when he was asked about his sport, it was like listening to a leaky faucet.

"I know all the guys, every guy has charisma and personality, and you just don't look at it," he chided reporters last week.

"The people are blaming us for not smiling and for not showing character. But unfortunately the sport is not as easy as it looks. Everyone serves more than 180 kilometers (about 108 m.p.h.) an hour; just once try to return that serve, you will understand why we are not smiling."

Medvedev continued: "I would like to make jokes. (But) you don't have to take me as a clown. I am not here to entertain you. If I lose, I will not try to make a tragedy or act like a loser. I would actually try to (play so) people would still enjoy the game. For them, it is a show, I understand that. For us, it's a job."

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Michael Chang, who has never been able to repeat the magic that brought him fame when he won the 1989 French Open at age 17, has along with top-ranked Pete Sampras brought a dignity to the game.

Chang's perspective on tennis' ills:

"It seems like team sports, you take each localized city and they are able to relate to a team. Tennis is so much an individual sport. Tennis has been brought up in such a way that it is so much a gentleman's sport that it is very difficult to get away from traditional ideas and traditional ways of presenting a match."

He suggested that promoters consider some of the changes that have made the NBA an international success.

"The way they market it is so much of an energy type of thing, they are showing the dunks and stuff like that," Chang said.

Chang also noted that although tennis is losing some interest in the United States, it is booming in Asia, where he is a fan favorite.

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The quality of tennis players is as good as ever. A Courier-Sampras match at a Grand Slam tournament has the potential to be as exciting as Borg-McEnroe. Perhaps tennis simply is going through a temporary slump, as many officials claim.

Yet, the players seem more aloof, more bent on their own wants. They are young millionaires whose lives are skewed by their bubble existence.

Not surprisingly, they have lost their sense of responsibility. Where are the ambassadors to replace the Arthur Ashes and Ken Rosewalls?

If Jim Courier thinks a little proclamation that he has changed is the answer he is more gullible than his adoring public. He and his ilk are going to have to work as hard off the court as they do on it to change tennis' image.

Perhaps Andre Agassi was right all along: Image is everything.

Tennis Notes

Jim Courier, who has played in 22 Grand Slam tournaments, was asked to rate the sites. Wimbledon is No. 1 in his book, the French Open No. 2, followed by the Australian Open and the U.S. Open, which he called a distant fourth. "I think I'd rate Court 1 at Wimbledon over the U.S. Open Center Court, actually," Courier said . . . Brooke Shields had a tennis connection long before she started dating Andre Agassi. Frank Shields, Brooke's grandfather, qualified for Wimbledon in the 1920s, but was unable to compete because of an injury. He did play in the first round of the U.S. Open but lost.

Boris Becker, who moved back into the top 10 last month for the first time since November, is scheduled to make a rare Southland appearance in the Los Angeles Open Aug. 1-7 at UCLA. Becker won titles at Indian Wells in 1987 and '88, but the three-time Wimbledon champion has never played in the L.A. Open. Among others scheduled to compete are Andre Agassi, who won the tournament in 1988, and Michael Chang, a finalist in three of the last five years. . . . Three "opportunity" tournaments--July 6-10 at Rancho San Clemente Tennis & Fitness Club, July 13-17 at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club and July 20-24 at Rancho Valencia Resort--will send their winners to a qualifying tournament for the Toshiba Classic, a WTA event Aug. 1-7 at La Costa.

Times Staff Writer Jerry Crowe, in Los Angeles, contributed to this column.

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