Storm clouds lurking over the Atlantic, stormy rivalries in the locker room. Two stars preoccupied and one re-occupied with regaining her former stellar status. The already noisy venue now a dusty construction site.
As a tattered curtain rises on another U.S. Open and professional tennis’ wheezing tour limps into town for its final Grand Slam event, it’s clear to see why players and officials have their nerves on edge: The heat. The rain. The traffic. The city. The event wouldn’t have the same gruff charm if everyone didn’t complain and moan.
There will be griping aplenty when play begins today at the National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows. Most of it was prompted, as it usually is, by the draw.
Steffi Graf comes into the tournament with an ailing back and the distraction of her father waiting in a German prison hospital charged with tax fraud on about $25 million of his daughter’s money. And Graf herself is still not legally clear.
Additionally, the co-No. 1’s first-round opponent is Amanda Coetzer, the same battling South African who handed Graf an embarrassing opening-round loss last week at Toronto. Should Graf escape Coetzer this time, she still has to deal with the tougher top half of the women’s draw. Graf could meet the sixth-seeded Mary Pierce of France in the quarterfinals and the third-seeded Arantxa Sanchez Vicario of Spain, the defending champion, in the semifinals.
By contrast, Monica Seles would appear to have an easier time at the bottom of the draw. Seles, ranked co-No. 1 and seeded second, will open with Ruxandra Dragomir of Romania. The only dangerous player Seles will meet before the semifinals is fifth-seeded Jana Novotna. However, Novotna’s status is not clear. She pulled up lame during an exhibition match on Saturday, complaining of an injured toe.
Seles won the Canadian Open last week, the first tournament she’s entered in 28 months. The circumstances of Seles’ return and her protected ranking has rankled some players, most notably the second-ranked Sanchez Vicario, who gets knocked down a notch to the No. 3 seed and loses some of her protection against playing seeded players in the early rounds.
The defending men’s champion, Andre Agassi, will face American Bryan Shelton in the first round. Shelton beat Agassi the only time the two have met. Also in Agassi’s half of the draw are Alex Corretja of Spain, two-time Open champion Stefan Edberg, who is unseeded but always able, Andrei Medvedev and seventh-seeded Yevgeny Kafelnikov.
Pete Sampras should have an easy opening match, going against Brazilian Fernando Meligeni. Like Graf, Sampras has not been playing well of late and is often thinking of something other than tennis. Sampras’ coach, Tim Gullikson, is suffering from brain tumors and even though he had hoped to attend the Open, he’s not here.
Although the No. 1 Agassi and No. 2 Sampras have been portrayed as friendly rivals, battling as sporting gentlemen for the top spot, the facts are somewhat different than the commercials promoted by their mutual apparel company.
Added to that, Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had as its cover story a no-holds-barred look at the tennis rivalry and friendship between Agassi and Sampras. The author concludes that, despite the hype, neither a real rivalry (Agassi has had the far better year) nor friendship exists.
The story is sure to intensify the already searing gossip in the locker rooms here, which, when all is said and done, is just the sort of infighting commonplace at the U.S. Open.