These days, just call it tennis' wide-Open Sampras, Sabatini face tough defenses

August 26, 1991|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEW YORK -- It used to be so much simpler at the tennis tournament everyone loved to hate.

A traveling circus settled into Flushing Meadow for two weeks each summer. The bickering performers complained about the oppressive heat, the obnoxious fans, the rotten schedule and the ever-present planes that flew over the hard courts.

In the end, though, the whining, off-key chorus was silenced, and the U.S. Open provided the dramatic close to a season that never ended.

But the game and the cast of star players have long since changed.

This year's U.S. Open, which begins today at the National Tennis Center, is filled with uncertainty. Pete Sampras and Gabriela Sabatini are back to defend their titles. Wish them well. In an era of disposable Grand Slam champions and ever-changing No. 1-ranked players, it's likely that two different champions will be collecting the $400,000 checks that go to this year's titlists.

Here are the 10 intriguing questions entering the tour's most dramatic Grand Slam event.

1. Exactly what does Sampras do the other 48 weeks of the year?

The gentleman in white who struck 100 aces last year and wiped out John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi to become the youngest men's champion in U.S. Open history was supposed to make the long, steady climb to No. 1 this summer. Instead, the 20-year-old chased after big-buck appearance fees at exhibitions, sustained injuries to his feet, his stomach and his back, broke with his coach for a month, hooked up with a 26-year-old woman and lost to Derrick Rostagno in the first round at Wimbledon.

Surprise, Sampras has been the hottest player on tour the past month, reaching three finals and winning two. Call him the favorite for an Open re-Pete.

2. If Sampras falls, who is waiting in the wings?

Boris Becker, the 1989 champion who emoted through Wimbledon, is the No. 1 seed and talks of making a championship run. French Open champion Jim Courier will bring his go-for-the-fences ground strokes and his trademark baseball cap into an arena that lies across the subway and railroad tracks from Shea Stadium.

Andre Agassi will trade his Wimbledon whites for his customary neon outfits. If he beats Aaron Krickstein in the first round and gets on a roll, Agassi can win his first Grand Slam title.

3. Can Sabatini win back-to-back Opens?

She adores the noise and the commotion in Louis Armstrong Stadium. She came within three points of beating Steffi Graf in the Wimbledon final. But if Sabatini doesn't show up with an improved second serve, she could be ousted in the quarterfinals by that 15-year-old return machine, Jennifer Capriati.

4. Whatever happened to Martina Navratilova, anyway?

She was taken to court by her former longtime companion, Judy Nelson. She double-faulted on match point to Capriati at Wimbledon. She spilled her guts to Barbara Walters on national television. Then she went underground, playing in TeamTennis, becoming the league's most valuable player and refining her serve. A four-time Open champion, Navratilova needs one more tournament title to match Chris Evert's record of 157.

5. Michael Stich?

The 22-year-old German, who conquered Wimbledon with nothing more than an outrageous serve and an overpowering return, remains a curiosity in the United States. He played in Schenectady, N.Y., last week at a tournament that charged no admission.

6. Is Monica Seles finished with the Madonna phase of her career?

First, the good news: The reigning Australian and French Open champion has recovered from the shin splints that forced her mysterious withdrawal from Wimbledon. Now, the bad news: She appeared on David Letterman last week.

7. Who are the most overlooked men's contenders?

Stefan Edberg and Lendl. So Edberg lost in last year's first round to Alexander Volkov. But after dropping three tie-breakers to Stich in their Wimbledon semifinal, Edberg raised an eyebrow and vowed to do well at the Open.

Lendl reached eight straight Open finals before last year, and suddenly, people were talking about the guy as if he were old or something. He's 31, is recovering from a hand injury and is at his most dangerous when he is commuting from his estate in Greenwich, Conn.

8. And the most overlooked women's contender?

Graf, of course. The two-time Open champion won Wimbledon and regained her No. 1 ranking but was sidelined at the Federation Cup with tendinitis in her right shoulder. When she is healthy, she wins, period.

9. Is next year now for Capriati?

After winning two straight tournaments and climbing to No. 7, Capriati suddenly became everyone's favorite to win the Open. It would be a wonderful story. But Capriati faces a daunting draw and still is learning to change her pace and tactics during difficult matches.

10. Can McEnroe reclaim his magic one more time?

He is 32, speaks of retiring about once every three weeks and polished whatever is left of his fading talent by playing in something called the Hamlet Challenge. To be or not to be? Playing at the Open should be so simple.

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