No-show racket needs restringing

Phil Jackman

August 20, 1991|By Phil Jackman

WASHINGTON -- The Perils of Pauline serial required no more than a fleeting glance when compared to the Menaces of Monica and the Virginia Slims of Washington tennis tournament.

After days of procrastination, misinformation and miscommunication, not to mention misrepresentation, the enigmatic Ms. Seles finally delivered a definite "no" to the Rock Creek Park tennis tournament yesterday. It was just in the nick of time, too, because players were already on the courts warming up.

A very audible sigh of relief was heard, not only when the announcement was made in the media room by tourney director Josh Ripple and Women's Tennis Association spokeswoman Jean Machant, but outside where several semi-interested people were gathered for the opening match between Katerina Maleeva and Carrie Cunningham.

Maybe, in the future, it would be wise for tourney organizers, sponsors, newspapers, TV and radio to simply state a tournament is being held at the Fitzgerald Center, not bothering with names.

Late last week, Steffi Graf pulled out of this $350,000 test (bad shoulder). Last month, Ivan Lendl canceled out of the Sovran Classic with a bum hand. "Worst ever was when Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe pulled out of the Sovran on back-to-back days," recalls Ripple.

Isn't it amazing how injuries only visit upon the game's top names, the men and women who sell tickets.

Clearly, it's about time someone got control of the athletes, their agents, representatives, advisers and anyone else loosely described as a spokesperson for so-and-so.

"It's not healthy for any sport to have this much controversy and chaos," said Jean Machant and she indicated someone from the WTA might be sitting down with Seles soon to discuss "her responsibilities regarding commitment."

Fact is, though, Monica never did actually commit to play, but committed only to think about it. Nevertheless and regardless of alleged miscommunication involving Seles' mother and a hotel operator and a few other bystanders, the tourney and WTA did advertise her appearance. For shame.

Certainly a culprit in this scenario is the computer, which spits out the tennis rankings weekly. While there are several examples of the tail (player) waving the dog (organization), it's apparent the computer waves the player.

For her appearance here, Seles would have been paid $50,000. The winner of the tourney lays claim to $70,000 with $35,000 to the runner-up. In other words, Monica could have made a bundle this week. Not so big, however, when you stop and consider she'll pull in about $3 million this year.

Time was when the likes of Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall played for their supper, literally. Nowadays, a headliner won't even slip into a tourney for a couple of off days on the way to her next appointment for upward of six figures.

After whipping Cunningham, 6-4, 6-0, Maleeva assessed the situation and said, "I can't say what Monica's doing is bad publicity. But I can't say it's good either. Andre Agassi got bad press and it has helped him. This might be Seles doing her thing. As long as she wins, they'll talk about her game, not the things off the court."

That's the way it is throughout sports, unfortunately. Jose Canseco double or triple books into autograph-signing appearances or whatever and stiffs somebody. A couple of long home runs and a speeding ticket or two and everybody cheers (or giggles) and looks the other way.

Going back to the original problem, the WTA spokesman said, "it's not uncommon for agents or parents to call in decisions of players." Ripple explained that "a niche has been created for representatives of athletes and the system usually works. One of the things that's frustrating in all this is that the situation has been exaggerated a bit."

No doubt this is true, which is a sad reflection on the game. Only about five players are draws on the women's tour, Graf, Gabriela Sabatini and Jennifer Capriati because of their games, Martina Navratilova because of her record and Seles because of her ranking.

Despite Ripple's cheery reminder that "eight [actually seven] of the top 15 women are playing here," the fact remains the tourney ended up 0-for-5 in the headliner department and it figures to show at the gate.

While it's true Leila Meshki, Nathalie Tauziat, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and all the gals whose names end in o-v-a (Czechs) are fine players, the American public is driven by marquee names. And, too often, these performers function as though they are the only people on earth.

The opening round of most tournaments are sparsely attended, but the afternoon matches approached the point of embarrassment yesterday. The umpire and linesmen near ly matched up favorably with the spectators during Mariaan De Swardt's 6-3, 7-6 win over Rosalyn Nideffer and Helen Kelesi's squeals while playing against Regina Rajchrtova could be heard all the way out on 16th Street.

So Seles decided not to play here. At least she sent along her grunt.

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