Always service ace, Shriver courting political aspirations

November 26, 1991|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Evening Sun Staff

Pam Shriver is a tennis player, and a union leader, a multimillionaire with a blue-chip portfolio and a patron of charities ranging from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation to Children's Hospital. She can play serve-and-volley on the grass courts of Wimbledon or hard-ball in a glass and granite corporate boardroom.

In her next career, she may even emerge as a politician.

Despite traveling the world for nearly half her life, Shriver retains her roots in Baltimore. That's why tonight is a special night for Shriver, providing her with the opportunity to bring together friends and a community. For the sixth time, Shriver will produce a charity tennis tournament in her hometown.

The marquee at the Baltimore Arena reads Martina Navratilova vs. Jennifer Capriati in the First National Bank Tennis Festival presented by The Baltimore Sun. But it is Shriver who remains the guiding force behind an event that is poised to go over the $1 million mark in net proceeds to charity.

And to think, it all started because Shriver simply wanted to play at home around Thanksgiving.

"You have a responsibility to do things for your community," Shriver said. "Last year I turned away from that, somewhat, to concentrate on my tennis. I realize, though, that I'm headed back in the other direction, back to my community."

The demands on Shriver's time have recently exacted a toll that is registered in the dark circles around her eyes. She has been engaged in a daunting and often frustrating comeback from shoulder surgery. Once the world's No. 4-ranked women's player, Shriver has been forced to remain patient and content with singles rankings in the mid-30s.

Increasingly, her energy has been sapped by her role as president of the Women's Tennis Association. When Billie Jean King organized the group in 1973, she used the presidency as a bully pulpit to rally players and sponsors to a cause -- women's pro sports. During the past seven years under Chris Evert's leadership, the WTA enjoyed tranquillity and prosperity.

But Shriver's one-year term, which began in August, has been fraught with decisions, and perhaps even a little danger, as the organization prepares to do business in the next century.

The WTA is trying to grab a larger slice of the tennis pie, seeking increases in prize money and greater clout in the four Grand Slam events -- the Australian, French and U.S. opens and Wimbledon.

The women's circuit has sponsorship trouble, too, triggered by the federal government's campaign to force professional sports

to cut their ties to cigarette companies. Although the women's tour has outgrown the old slogan, "You've Come A Long Way, Baby," Virginia Slims continues as a primary sponsor.

"I understand the conflict between healthy women and cigarettes," Shriver said. "But it's the company's right to figure out the best way to market the product. And you can't put enough of an emphasis on loyalty. Virginia Slims has supported us for a long time. But there comes a time that old loyalties will change."

Making Shriver's job as WTA president even more difficult is that she is, in effect, a union leader of millionaires who are often guided by the whims and wishes of overzealous agents and overprotective parents. She also has to deal with an array of tennis businessmen, some of whom have all the charm of boxing promoters.

"In 1989, I went through a lot of the same things and it hurt my tennis," Shriver said. "Now I know that if things get too out of hand, I'll take the phone off the hook."

Even that drastic measure rarely helps. Three weeks ago in Oakland, Calif., Shriver discovered that she had 66 telephone messages waiting at a hotel switchboard.

"You can't handle 66 calls and play tennis," Shriver said.

Still, she is trying to achieve a balance between leadership and competition. Shriver has limited her playing schedule to doubles. A summer of travel and play that brought some triumphs, including a triple gold-medal performance at the Pan American Games in Cuba, left Shriver's surgically repaired right shoulder limp and tired. Next month, she'll begin training again to prepare for January's Australian Open.

Shriver acknowledges that at 29 she is closer to the end than the beginning of her playing career. Yet even while trying to climb higher in the rankings, she admits she has a bubbling passion for another competition -- politics.

Shriver's allegiance to the Republican Party is no secret. She campaigned for the Bush/Quayle ticket in 1988 and plans to do so again in 1992. She has no immediate plans to run for political office, but she admits she is considering the possibility.

"The time I start to take it seriously is when I pick up the phone and talk to people who help potential candidates," she said. "I haven't gotten that far."

But what was once viewed as a "distant possibility" is now moving into clearer focus.

"It's an interest that has stood the test of time," she said.

For now, though, Shriver said she will concentrate on tennis and charity, and do her politicking for women's tennis.

Washington can wait.

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