The trouble with Olympic tennis: It's just another stop on the tour The Games go on, with little distinction

July 22, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- Wimbledon, it's not.

But what the tennis tournament at the Summer Olympics lacks in tradition, clout and drama, it makes up for in . . .

That's the problem. No one has figured out how to turn what is essentially another stop on a world-wide serve-and-volley tour into a grand Olympic moment.

This week, Barcelona. Next week, Indianapolis.

Wimbledon champion Steffi Graf is here. So are American's Jim Courier, No. 1 in the world, and Michael Chang and Pete Sampras. And Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, the local heroine, will aim for a gold medal on red clay at the La Teixonera Municipal Tennis Club.

But look who's missing. Three of the top four women's players, Martina Navratilova, Gabriela Sabatini and No. 1 Monica Seles. Newly crowned Wimbledon champion Andre Agassi. And John McEnroe, who interrupted his broadcast career to reach the Wimbledon semifinals.

Even Spain's newest tennis star, Barcelona native Carlos Costa, didn't make the Olympic cut because his climb in the rankings occurred after the Olympic rosters were set.

If you closed your eyes, you'd swear this was the Lipton Tournament.

Still, the millionaires who are here are saying all the right things about playing for something other than a down payment on a condo.

"It's obviously very special playing for your country at the Olympics, a meeting of the best athletes in the world," Courier said. "So I'm really looking forward to it. I'm treating it as my fifth Grand Slam this year. An Olympic gold medal would look nice in the cabinet."

Among the other medal contenders are Germany's Boris Becker and Michael Stich and Sweden's Stefan Edberg in men's singles and Americans Jennifer Capriati and Mary Joe Fernandez in women's singles. Zina Garrison, who won a doubles gold with Pam Shriver in 1988, and Gigi Fernandez also play for the U.S. women.

"It will have a Davis Cup-type feeling," Sampras said. "I'd like to take a look around and see some other sports. But you're basically there just to play tennis."

You can hardly blame the players for having to work up enthusiasm for the Olympics. Tennis was dropped from the Olympic program for 64 years, returning as a non-medal event at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Four years ago, in Seoul, South Korea, tennis received a full-medal designation, but ignited only tepid crowd support and scant media coverage.

"At the Olympics, it's just like any other tournament," Switzerland's Jakob Hlasek said.

What does Wimbledon have that the Olympics do not?

More than 100 years of tradition, said Hlasek.

"I wouldn't say the Olympics are not so important," he said. "But it has a different importance for tennis players as for other athletes. It's very normal that tennis players feel about the

Olympics a little bit differently, than, say, the gymnasts or the track and fielders.

"When I began to play tennis, my dreams were about winning Wimbledon, winning the French, never about the Olympics. For us players, we can not change these feelings about the Olympics and the Grand Slams so quickly. Maybe in 20 years we're going to feel differently."

In many ways, the Olympics are for the very old and the very young of tennis. McEnroe wanted to play here, but wasn't selected by the U.S. Tennis Association. Neither was Agassi, who was sinking in the rankings when the team was picked last winter.

"It would have been a nice way to go out," said McEnroe, who plans to cut back on his playing schedule next year.

Navratilova also expressed interest in competing, but because she did not play in last year's Federation Cup, she was blocked from the Olympics. The same rule prevented Seles and Sabatini from playing at the Games.

"I think the selection process is unconscionable and very self-serving," Navratilova said last month. "What does the Federation Cup have to do with the Olympics?"

Capriati couldn't care less about tennis politics. She's looking for two things in Barcelona -- a gold medal and tickets to a U.S. men's basketball game.

"The Olympics mean a lot to me . . . I think," Capriati said. "You know the Olympics right now are more important than any other Grand Slam this year. You think the Olympics and you are able to play for your country. It's the greatest feeling in the world. And I'm looking forward to just seeing all the athletes and feeling the ,, feeling out there, with everyone there."

"You know," she said, "the atmosphere."

# We get the picture.

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