Sovran-like tourneys deserve more than grand brushoff from pro-Slam players

Phil Jackman

July 17, 1991|By Phil Jackman

WASHINGTON -- Most tennis players have been sold a bill of goods. They read or heard somewhere that beyond the Grand Slam events everything else is Bridgeport and they believe it.

While it's true one's record at Wimbledon, in Paris, Flushing Meadow and Melbourne plus Davis Cup heroics are the things Hall of Fame credentials and huge endorsement contracts are made of, not every honored player has gone that route.

Still, into conversations following match victories in the Sovran Bank Classic yesterday trooped young men obsessed with the notion that this was Bridgeport.

Since the feed-in qualifying tournament over the weekend, players have been saying the Rock Creek Park hardcourts are playing much faster than in the past. "I think they let them get fast, so the speed [on similar surface courts] won't be such a shock when we get to the [U.S.] Open," explained Jim Grabb, a 6-3, 6-3 victor over Ivan Baron.

After getting by Glenn Layendecker in a tough three-setter, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, Richey Reneberg outlined how this and several tourneys to follow are designed mostly to get him ready for the big hoedown in New York come Labor Day.

The prize money for the Sovran is $600,000. This very minute, six dozen other itinerant tennis types are playing for $1 million at the Mercedes Cup in Stuttgart, Germany. Subsequent tournaments like the ATP Championships in Cincinnati, the Canadian Open in Montreal, Los Angeles and several other cities here and abroad have huge piles of dough beckoning, and it's all for the greater glorification of the 'Slams?'

Not likely.

If there was one break in the general theme yesterday it was provided by MaliVai Washington. He had been extended to three sets by Javier Frana, 6-3, 6-7, 6-1, and, he admitted, this was as good as a Wimbledon final for him.

"I look at every match and every tournament as an opportunity to do well," said Washington. "No matter where I am or what surface I'm playing on, I look to improve, please everyone and develop a following."

Which is the way it should be for every player outside the exalted half-dozen, who win all the Grand Slam events, gain all the seven-figure endorsements and pick and choose appearances with only their interests in mind.

For 23 years now the Tennis Patrons of D.C. have conducted a tourney, beginning with a 16-man field playing for $25,000 on spartan public parks courts and progressing to the current show being staged in a spiffy $12.5 million stadium. It has earned its spurs and should cringe when it is referred to or thought of as a "warmup" for a tournament five weeks hence.

And this is particularly so for the quality of the players in the field. The 56-man cast is solid, not outstanding once past top-seeded Andre Agassi, John McEnroe and Brad Gilbert, the only top 20 players entered.

For years, players complained that Washington is too hot in July. If it wasn't that, they complained about the court surface (clay) and the tournament's proximity to the conclusion of Wimbledon early in the month.

Unable to drastically alter summer weather hereabouts to suit the tourists, the tournament resurfaced its courts to ensure shorter matches and otherwise did things to please. Regardless, not enough mid-range players (No. 20 to 100) have entered consistently while all the longshots seem to want to talk about is how the event figures in their plans for the future.

Just once what a joy it would be to have a guy say, "Boy, I'd give anything to win this tournament. I mean, look at the list of guys who have won here: Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Guillermo Vilas, Arthur Ashe, Ken Rosewall, Tony Roche and Yannick Noah."

Chances of that happening are slim and none, however, because they've been sold a bill of goods -- alias, if it doesn't happen on the big stage with television there gawking, it ain't worth writing home about.

In a related incident, Reebok announced it is dumping a ton of money into the coffers of the well-to-do U.S. Open to serve as official/exclusive shoe of the tournament while also picking up the tab for the junior tourney there. It solidifies the old expression them that has, gets.

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