U.S. again volleys for tennis supremacy Agassi's climb to the top symbolic of new status

July 07, 1992|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

WIMBLEDON, England -- During a time when American men's tennis went nearly five years with only one major championship, Andre Agassi seemed to epitomize the problem.

Too much flash.

Too much money.

Too little heart.

Now, after falling short in 22 of 23 Grand Slam events -- Michael Chang's victory at the 1989 French Open was the only major title won by a U.S. player -- Americans have dominated the sport the past year.

With Agassi's five-set Wimbledon victory over Goran Ivanisevic at the All England Club, American men have won all three of this year's Grand Slam championships and four of the past six major singles titles.

"Three years ago, in every interview I did, I was asked what is wrong with American tennis," former tour player Brian Gottfried said. "Now, all I do is talk about what is right with American tennis."

As a coach in the United States Tennis Association's 4-year-old developmental program, Gottfried is starting to see progress, payback for the estimated $7 million-a-year investment.

It's not in Agassi's victory at Wimbledon, but in Chanda Rubin's junior girls championship Sunday and in Brian Dunn's reaching the final of the junior boys event at Wimbledon. Both are products of the USTA program.

"I wish I could say there's some magic thing we do, but there isn't," said Gottfried, who works out of the ATP headquarters near Jacksonville, Fla. "It's just all cyclical."

In reality, the apparent rejuvenation of American men's tennis might have more to do with Agassi's coach, Nick Bollettieri, than with the USTA.

Bollettieri, whose Bradenton, Fla., tennis academy has been the center of controversy for several years, has coached a group of American men's players that, at one time or another, included Agassi, Jim Courier, Aaron Krickstein and Jimmy Arias.

Though Agassi is the only highly ranked player remaining under Bollettieri -- the top-ranked Courier, who left three years ago, now is coached by Jose Higueras -- he has put his stamp on the game. Muscle tennis is being played at the higher echelons of the sport, with Agassi as its symbol.

"It's not the USTA developmental program that was responsible for this revival," NBC tennis analyst Bud Collins said during Wimbledon. "It's the Nick Bollettieri developmental program."

With Agassi's victory -- his first Grand Slam title after three notable failures -- it is likely that Bollettieri's business, not to mention his influence, will grow. The victory showed that a strong-armed baseliner can win on grass.

There are those, however, who wonder how much of an effect the USTA development program will have, if any. Except for sixth-ranked Jennifer Capriati and Rubin, a 16-year-old from Lafayette, La., few American teen-age girls have made much of an impact internationally.

Though there are three American men in the top 10, and No. 14 Agassi is likely to move up as well, there don't appear to be many phenoms on the horizon. Of the top men's players, only Chang received financial aid from the USTA.

For that reason, some are questioning the time, effort and, more importantly, money the USTA is investing in the future. It isn't so much a grass-roots program interested in finding and developing talent, they charge, as much as one helping only the top junior players whose abilities are well-established.

"Five years ago, the USTA was pushing the panic button," said Dick Stockton, another former men's tour player. "Jimmy [Connors] was in his mid-30s and John [McEnroe] was in his late 20s, and there was nobody coming up behind them. They hadn't done anything for 20 years, and they got nervous seeing what countries like Australia and Sweden were doing."

Though most respect the job being done by former tennis great Stan Smith, who heads the USTA, there is concern that the organization is throwing away money in order to improve its image. The coaches of several young pros, including Capriati, are paid by the USTA to travel with their proteges.

"In Texas, they are cutting local tennis programs," Stockton said. "Something isn't right with that. A lot more people could be playing tennis if there was a more equitable distribution of those USTA funds."

"On the one hand, he's [Stockton] right: These guys like Agassi and Courier and Sampras are already on their road," said Dick Dell, vice president of ProServ, the Arlington, Va., sports management company. "On the other hand, the concept is a good one in trying to select a group of kids at an early age and put them in an environment with good coaching, proper training."

Dell, whose company represents several American players, including Sampras, as well as international stars Gabriela Sabatini and Stefan Edberg, said the United States must make the same kind of commitment "in order to stay up with and maybe stay ahead of the curve."

At the same time, he said, "You can argue whether it's worth $7 million a year."

But the victory here by Agassi, as well as Courier's titles earlier this year at the Australian and French opens, will serve as a rebirth of American men's tennis. Agassi was the first U.S. man to win Wimbledon since McEnroe in 1984.

Along with Agassi's victory, this year's Wimbledon marked the first time that three American men made the semifinals since 1984. Agassi beat McEnroe, and Pete Sampras lost to Ivanisevic of Croatia.

"I think it's great," McEnroe, 33, said after reaching the semifinals for the first time in three years. "I mean, you've got Chang winning the French. Courier's won three majors in the last 18 months, and Andre's been so close, and Pete [Sampras, another Wimbledon semifinalist] won the [1990 U.S.] Open. And here I am again. I don't think that Americans have a whole lot to worry about at the moment."

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