Tennis today: fast returns on ever-shorter careers

September 01, 1991|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEW YORK -- Three years ago, Mats Wilander won the U.S. Open at age 24 and became the world's No. 1-ranked men's player. After trading in his racket for a guitar, Wilander is on the road with a Swedish rock-and-roll band.

Monica Seles is 17, has won two Grand Slam tournaments this year and could add the U.S. Open to her collection. But in five years, she might be starring in "Truth or Dare II."

The era of growing up and growing old with your favorite tennis stars may be coming to an end. Careers are shorter. Money is greater. And distractions and pressures multiply geometrically.

Thirtysomething players like Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl and Martina Navratilova survive as the last of a breed. In the tennis new age, where players win Grand Slams before their senior proms, the mantra for many of the millionaires is 25 and out.

This isn't burnout, it's future shock, a headlong rush for riches that condenses careers into lucrative five- and 10-year chunks. Jennifer Capriati is a corporate empire at age 15. Pete Sampras wins the U.S. Open before he gets a steady girlfriend or a high school diploma. Boris Becker is a Wimbledon champion and instant millionaire at 17, and a candidate for retirement at 23.

What's going on here, anyway?

"Tennis has advanced so much in the last 10 years," Seles said. "It will just be much harder for players to last 13 or 15 years on the tour. It's a different world now."

It's different, but not necessarily better. In the pre-Open amateur era, there was no rush to cash in because there were no paychecks to cash. But when the under-the-table cash payments stopped and the legal prize money poured into tennis in 1968, the rules changed.

The country club game is now played for Wall Street stakes. Millions ride on the shoulders of teen-agers who aren't old enough to vote or drive.

From a distance, it's a glamorous life. But up close, the tour is tough and taxing, a non-stop road show that crisscrosses time zones and continents and plays on through injuries and personal crises. Some can hang on, others can't. Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger were the teen-aged stars of the early 1970s, whose comet-like careers flamed out after mounting injuries.

Chris Evert is viewed as the player who created the perfect career in the Open era. She didn't turn professional until she was 18 and a high school graduate, and she continued to win Grand Slams in her 30s.

"You see these players with limousines and private planes now," Navratilova said. "Maybe it is tougher, but the lifestyle sure is easier. The demand on your time is greater, certainly, but you still pick and choose what you are going to do."

The care and feeding of a career may be a science, but it's handled by an entourage of agents, coaches and parents, all tugging at a player's time and energy.

"The average career lasts about seven years," said Tom Gullickson, the United States Tennis Association's touring coach who works with Capriati. "The financial rewards are so great that for the top players to last a long time, they have to want a long career. You have to love the game, you have to want to compete and you have to put up with the lifestyle."

Theories abound about why it's so difficult to put together a long-lasting career. There is the travel, of course. Tennis is the only world sport, the men's and women's tours spreading across five continents.

"Baseball players complain about traveling through three time zones. We go through five and six, we go overseas for months at a time," said Tom Gorman, the U.S. Davis Cup coach.

The schedule is continuous. There are weekly tournaments. There are one-night exhibitions. And there are the Grand Slams, the four majors that are spread erratically on the calendar, with the Australian Open in January, and the French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open championships crammed into a three-month window in the spring and the summer.

The money is a blessing and a curse. The guarantee system is so ingrained, that players often overplay to chase after cash they receive for merely showing up in San Francisco or Stuttgart, Germany. And then, once you've made your third million, what else is there to play for?

"If you want to play tennis for five or six years and play every week and take the money, that's fine for some," said John Wheaton, who manages the career of his brother, David, ranked No. 20 in the world.

"But you have to have your priorities," Wheaton said. "You have to think of a player's health and longevity. David has the desire for a long career, to play into his 30s. For anyone, the schedule is the most important decision they can make. It's more important than endorsement deals. The money comes, but you can't make the money if you burn yourself out."

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