A clash of personalities? Not in this faceless final

MIKE LITTWIN

September 09, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

NEW YORK -- We found something out yesterday in the post-Jimbo U.S. Open. Tennis isn't enough.

Stefan Edberg played wonderful tennis. Jim Courier didn't. And it wouldn't have mattered if it had been the other way around. Nothing mattered. Whatever they did, these players were trapped in a show we can call "My Mother the Tennis Match."

Let's just say it didn't exactly drip with drama. In fact, I've seen more heat and light at shoe-store openings. But give the fans credit: They yawned only between points. Of course, the match, mercifully, lasted just two hours.

The problem was that the ghost of Jimbo hovered side by side with the Fuji blimp over the stadium court, and both were more compelling than the tennis below. Edberg is a brilliant athlete, who combines power and grace in semi-mythic proportion. And no one cares. Courier, besides wearing a cap, also features a kind of nearly appealing grittiness. But grittiness doesn't quite get it. Nasty gets it, and Courier doesn't have it.

They asked Jimbo the other day if Jim Courier reminded him of himself, and Jimbo said, "No one reminds me of me."

And he was right.

This is good and bad. You wouldn't want anyone to be exactly like Jimbo, unless you find pre-adolescent vulgarity particularly cute. But, face it, we like it. We demand personality, even if it's deviant, from our tennis players. We demand an edge. We want a neurotic like McEnroe. We want a boor like Jimbo. We even are attracted to someone who pretends to be a neurotic boor like Agassi.

But there's a problem. Jimbo is 100 years old, McEnroe might as well be 100, and Agassi (young but obnoxious beyond his years) is more likely to get knocked out in the first round than he is to win a Grand Slam event. The only other appealing figure on the men's tour is Boris Becker, who, at 23 going on 57, is always one more long, boring practice session away from retirement. Boris has the shelf life of fresh shrimp.

What are we left with? Until Edberg won yesterday, there had been seven consecutive different Grand Slam event winners. In sports, we like dynasties. We like heroes and we like villains. That's what was so special about Jimbo -- he had both going. We want someone or something to arouse our passions, and then we meet up with Edberg, now the game's top player. Ivan Lendl, the top player for years, is a robot, which means you can't root for him, but you could root against him. Bjorn Borg had a complete lack of personality, but he had a DiMaggio-type mystery about him. And he had sex appeal. We know what Jimbo and McEnroe had.

Today the tennis tour might as well be the golf tour, which has a similar problem. People want to watch Jack Nicklaus and not Corey Pavin, who might as well be Stefan Edberg minus the accent. Edberg is completely normal. He's calm. He's polite. He's a Swede who lives in civilized London and looks as if he should be drinking tea. He doesn't make your blood pressure rise. He's lucky if he makes you look up, which is fine with Edberg, who says he's happiest out of the spotlight. Jimbo's got one set up in his living room.

And it gets worse from there. The young guys don't even seem to want to win. Michael Chang, when he lost the French this year as defending champion, said he felt relieved, as if a "bag of bricks" had fallen from his back. When Pete Sampras, the defending Open champion, lost Thursday, he said about six times how happy he was to have the monkey off his back. These are champions? These are guys you write poetry about? Ulysses turned his ships around because he was afraid a bag of bricks might fall on him? Give me a break. Give Jimbo a break. This is when you want Jimbo, and here's what he had to say about these tennis weenies:

"This is the biggest crock of dump that I have heard. I spent my whole life trying to win seven of these in a row or whatever you can do. That's the greatest feeling you can have, to be the U.S. Open champion and to try to do it again. If these guys aren't living for that, then something is wrong. Don't talk to me about these guys being relieved. If they are, something is wrong with the game and something is wrong with them. Is that strong enough?"

The tennis to watch is on the women's side where the leading players range from interesting to fascinating. Jennifer Capriati is on her way to being America's sweetheart. Monica Seles is on her way to being Madonna. Steffi Graf gives us angst; Martina Navratilova is the old warrior. And what Gabriela Sabatini lacks in personality she makes up for in pin-up appeal. She even has her own line of perfume.

On the men's side, it may be up to Courier to save the day. At 21, he has the potential to be a fine player. He has heart. He'd be happy to compare himself to what he called the pre-scandal Pete Rose. He plays hard, and he's not afraid to win titles two years in a row. Maybe he can do it, because we can't count on another year of Jimbomania. I don't know if we could stand the excitement.

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