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When Tarango Goes, It’s a Bang, Not a Whimper

Like a lot of people now, I go to watch Jeff Tarango play tennis to see if anyone gets slapped.

It’s like going to a hockey game to see if there’s a fight, or to a baseball game to see if Chili Davis jabs a fan.

I had never seen Tarango play in person before this week. I had never even heard of him until last month, when Tarango told a Wimbledon audience to “shut up"--you know those British tennis hooligans--and then walked out of his match after calling the chair umpire “corrupt,” whereupon his wife gave the official a six-love tap across the cheek, as though challenging him to a duel.

Well, I am pleased--no, sad--no, pleased--to report that in Wednesday night’s match against Michael Stich at the Infiniti Open being played at UCLA, nothing nasty happened as Tarango played the entire match and was eliminated, 6-3, 6-3.

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Oh, Tarango talked a lot--Stich later hinted that he wished he could have said, “shut up,” himself--and flopped onto his back like a snow angel, but that was that. Tarango lost the match, uppercut the tennis ball 100 feet in the sky and called it a tournament.

Stich, who is best known for winning a Wimbledon, not walking out on one, said of Tarango’s distraction tactics: “He tried a lot of things that didn’t work.

“There are two ways to do it. One is to get the crowd a little bit involved. The other is to try to distract your opponent. In Jeff’s case, it’s to try to distract his opponent. It’s really not a fair thing to do.”

No, although it isn’t as if Tarango yelled out that Stich’s shoelace was untied, or anything like that.

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The important thing is that the match went off without incident, and that a hometown crowd--Tarango is from Manhattan Beach--treated him warmly and enjoyed his various high jinks.

When Stich hit a monster backhand that was in by inches, Tarango took a ball and placed it on the spot where it landed, leaving it there until a ballboy fetched it.

When one of Stich’s 120-m.p.h. first serves came right at him and sent him reeling backward, Tarango comically moved forward for the second serve until he stood halfway inside the service box.

He was a good sport and a good entertainer, for the most part. As an ATP official said after his match, “Jeff’s always been that way. He’s just been that way out on Court 13, where nobody sees him.”

True. He’s a cut-up.

Tarango said there’s been “a misperception” of him since the Wimbledon weirdness. He said of his animated behavior: “I’ve always been that way since I’ve been on the tour. It loosens me up a little bit. If I make a stupid shot, I say: ‘What a stupid shot!’

“Sometimes people might not be able to tell if I’m mad at somebody else or mad at me.”

I trust people at the U.S. Open will be able to tell, because Tarango’s act could have two outcomes there. If he acts rude and crazy in New York and tells the crowd to shut up, Tarango will either be (a) booed and called bad names, or (b) given his own morning radio show.

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There must be something about left-handed players.

Stich said: “No one knows what happened exactly at Wimbledon. For sure it was wrong what he did. But [John] McEnroe wasn’t the greatest behaving player, and people loved him. And [Jimmy] Connors, when he was young, he was the worst of all of them.

“Tarango’s more famous now, at least.”

Stich himself had hecklers who annoyed him so much at UCLA a couple of years ago that he skipped the next year’s tournament. He also specifically asked tourney officials to avoid scheduling him at night, because of a vision problem he was having. He was not obliged.

“The experience I had two years ago was not the greatest,” Stich said, “but I love L.A., so I thought I would give it another shot.”

Our tennis fans here, known for their sweetness, appreciate any event where the crowd isn’t chanting, “Beat L.A.!” or where a fan from Pittsburgh isn’t being beaten into a coma. So, I’m sure they will be on their best behavior at UCLA, right through Sunday’s final.

Tarango was asked if he would care to venture an opinion as to which player would win it.

“I don’t even know who’s in it,” he said.

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That little rascal. You never know what he’s going to say next.

Tarango thought it over and said, “I know who’s not going to win the tournament.”


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