U.S. men's tennis on comeback 5 players showcase rise of Americans

July 09, 1991|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

WIMBLEDON, England -- Five years ago, American men's tennis was in a funk. Jimmy Connors was in a state of decline and John McEnroe was in a state of siege.

Tim Mayotte and Brad Gilbert were making millions winning all those disposable tour titles in Schenectady, N.Y., Memphis, Tenn., and Cleveland, yet going out meekly in the Grand Slams. Aaron Krickstein and Jimmy Arias were waif-like base-liners whose bodies were cracking from overuse.

But now, the American men are back.

Wimbledon may have ended Sunday with Michael Stich beating Boris Becker in the tournament's first all-German men's final. Yet the subplot at Wimbledon was the continuing rise of a new generation of American tennis players.

When David Wheaton reached the Wimbledon semifinals, he became the fifth young American star in the past three years to create a stir in a Grand Slam event.

The American rebound began dramatically with Michael Chang's shocking triumph at the 1989 French Open and accelerated rapidly within the last year. Andre Agassi is the most famous of the young Americans, but he still lacks a Grand Slam title to call his own. He was beaten at the 1990 U.S. Open final by Pete Sampras and upset by Jim Courier at last month's French Open.

"I think it has been pretty apparent over the last few years that there obviously is a good young crop right now," Wheaton said. "It's just a matter of time before we all start really making a huge impact on the game. We are all kind of aiming for Grand Slams."

The American rise didn't just happen by chance. Agassi, Wheaton, Courier and Sampras all came out of the Florida training academy operated by Nick Bollettieri. But unlike one-dimensional base-liners of a previous generation, they received serve-and-volley seasoning, shortening points and saving energy.

The United States Tennis Association also began providing a generous helping hand three years ago. The USTA set up a program of national training centers for promising juniors. The organization also paid for coaches to travel with the top young stars.

Jose Higueras helped Chang and Courier chart their championship course at Roland Garros in Paris. Tom Gullickson, another USTA instructor, oversees the remarkable on-court career of 15-year-old Jennifer Capriati.

Each of the top young men's players brings a unique style and personality to the game. Chang enjoys life along the baseline, while Agassi and Courier are learning to mix in volleys. Wheaton and Sampras are classic serve-and-volley specialists.

"If you're a very religious person, you can look at Michael and say, 'God, he's my idol,' " Courier said. "If you like the show business side of it, you can say, 'Andre, a great player.' I'm a blue-collar kind of guy. They'd love me in Pittsburgh, I'm sure. And David Wheaton is kind of your all-American guy, kind of the Ken doll from the Barbie toys -- wearing an American headband. And Pete, he's just real mellow and low key, goes about his business kind of loosey-goosey, and that's the way it is."

Chang -- 5-foot-8 and 145 pounds -- is the thinking man's champion, a 19-year-old who plays the angles and the percentages to counteract the power of opponents. He may never be able to repeat his Paris championship, but he is a steady player capable of advancing to the round of 16 in any Grand Slam he enters.

Agassi, 21, brings show-biz glitz and a walloping service return to the court. He showed at Wimbledon that he is developing an all-court game, but there still are questions about his heart and desire to become more than just the sport's pin-up poster boy. Injured in the first set of his quarterfinal against Wheaton, he fought valiantly through three more sets before giving up in the fifth.

Sampras, who turns 20 next month, also has become something of an enigma after his magnificent run at the 1990 U.S. Open. He plays the big game with amazing grace, combining a fastball serve and an elegant volley. But he has sustained a series of leg injuries, and he went out meekly in the second round at Wimbledon to Derrick Rostagno.

"You know, there is a point in my career, when I was 80 and 90 in the world, and I kind of plugged as a player," Sampras said. "I looked at myself in the mirror. I have a lot of talent and I really did not work very hard for that. I didn't want to have any regrets when I finished my tennis. Then I kind of got myself in gear and started working out, started working hard and took the game more professionally."

Sampras will need to recapture that spirit to avoid embarrassment when he returns to New York next month to defend his U.S. Open championship.

Of all the young Americans, the hottest on tour is Courier, who turns 21 next month. He is ranked No. 5 in the world, a gritty player who wails from the baseline but isn't afraid to come to net. He went further than expected at Wimbledon, reaching the quarterfinals before being served out of the tournament by Stich. Courier may yet emerge as the one American who can win this year's U.S. Open.

"I think it's just really a positive thing for the tennis movement in America, to have a group of players coming up," he said. "The thing that's really nice about our group is that we're all five very different individuals."

The Americans are back, ready to step forward and take their places on a Grand Slam stage. The next stop is New York. Anyone for another all-American final?

The great American hopes

6,

.... .... .... Age.... Career highlights

Andre Agassi..... 21 .... 1990 ATP World Championship Title; French Open finalist 1990, '91; U.S. Open finalist 1990; Davis Cup team member.

Michael Chang.... 19 .... 1989 French Open champion; 1990 French Open quarterfinalist; Davis Cup team member.

Jim Courier...... 20 .... 1991 French Open champion; 1991 Lipton champion; Davis Cup team member.

Pete Sampras..... 19 .... 1990 U.S. Open champion; 1990 Grand Slam Cup champion.

David Wheaton.... 22 .... 1991 Wimbledon semifinalist; 1990 U.S. Open quarterfinalist.

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