Tennis serves up a fan-friendly look for the men's game

OF LOVE, PASSION - AND IMAGE

June 27, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

Wimbledon, England -- Andre Agassi is throwing his shirt to screaming crowds. Britain's Chris Wilkinson is wiggling around the court after victories as if he has just scored a World Cup goal.

L And Pete Sampras and Jim Courier are putting on happy faces.

This is the new, fan-friendly look of men's tennis.

This usually quiet, traditional game, admired for its serves, its volleys and its manners, is about to be overrun with midriffs, biceps and thighs.

If the NHL can score big with a series of entertaining commercials that make the sport more lovable by getting up close to the players, showing their faces and personalities, so can tennis.

"This is the only game played with two players in short pants and short sleeves on a court with all eyes concentrated on their every move," said ATP Tour spokesman Kevin O'Keefe. "They are fully exposed. Every move is scrutinized, criticized and televised. You can't find it in any other sport.

"It has sex appeal, and the tour is certainly trying to enhance it."

The tour is pursuing projects to expose its players. A series of commercials similar to those used by the NHL this spring will begin appearing on ESPN, giving a more personal look at players.

There is no money in the ATP budget to pay players to participate in the campaign. But last month, Agassi got the project started when he gave up an entire day to film his spots.

"They asked me to do it," he said. "If it helps the game, I'm for it."

It's his style to be flamboyant, and surveys show he is the most popular player on tour, though he is not even ranked in the top 10.

Fans love his playfulness. They have a sense of his personality. That's the kind of image tennis officials would like for more of their players.

"No one has ever been in the business of selling tennis before," O'Keefe said.

John McEnroe, who, along with Jimmy Connors, brought a combative, crowd-pleasing style to the court, said it's about time.

"We don't have personalities out there; we have robots, basically," he said. "But there are personalities. They just have to be uncovered."

Here at traditional, old Wimbledon, fans are oohing and ahhing over the men playing the game.

Even 104th-ranked Markus Zoecke, a 6-foot-5 German with short-cropped blond hair, had a screaming contingent clamoring for his attention when he left Wimbledon on Saturday.

It is almost a pure role reversal -- women ogling and whistling at the men. They're checking out Agassi, Bailey, Goran Ivanisevic, Pat Rafter and the Jensen brothers, Luke and Murphy.

"Babe appeal is all part of the game," said Murphy Jensen, noting he and his brother may not have movie stars in their stadium box the way Agassi does, but "our box always has eight or 10 hot babes."

Even the men watching these matches are showing some kind of appreciation. When Agassi won his five-set match here against Nicolas Pereira, the men in the crowd were screaming as loudly as the women.

And when Agassi pulled off his shirt and threw it into the stands, a man caught it, hugged it to his chest and refused to give it up.

The last time such a thing happened to the pristine game of tennis was in the late 1970s, when Bjorn Borg sent every teen-age girl worth her Scotch tape into fits of joy with every new poster she found for her bedroom wall.

Last November, the ATP Tour, the governing body of the men's pro tennis circuit, called a summit meeting in Frankfurt, Germany.

The subject was "The Fan's Experience," and the purpose was (( to explore the way the game is presented to the public and how to make it more engaging.

"Part of the reason that there's a problem with the personalities is because the game seems to me so much more of a business," McEnroe said. "It doesn't seem that enjoyable. Here they are making this humongous sum of money, playing in front of thousands of people, doing something that I consider to be the best living in the world -- being a professional athlete.

"Now, how can that be bad? Now, somewhere you have to figure out a way to drum it into these people, that they're the luckiest people around and let it show."

That the meeting was held shows a change of perspective among the powers of tennis, who had seemed more concerned about protecting players from public contact.

But at this point, with television ratings down and big serves taking much of the fun out of the sport, tennis officials are thankful for any kind of bump in game appeal they can get.

"It's time players and promoters realize they're in the entertainment business," ESPN producer Dennis Deninger said. "Players have to open up and show more emotion, and the sport has to encourage more crowd involvement."

The ATP Tour is hoping that several rules changes it announced yesterday will have the effect of loosening up the competitors during matches.

Beginning July 18, just in time for the Washington Tennis Classic, fans seated in upper decks of stadiums at ATP Tour events will be allowed to come and go at will.

Fans throughout the grandstands also will be allowed to cheer before, after and even during points, without having to face a reprimand from the umpire -- unless it is judged that the screaming is being done to distract a player.

"This isn't the NBA," said Peter Alfano, an ATP Tour vice president. "We don't want fans distracting the players the way they do on foul shots.

"But we think that by allowing more enthusiasm, the players will get into it more, too, and be more expressive."

The ATP also is going to permit the chair umpire to be miked for telecasts and to reduce the time between points from 25 to 20 seconds, which means there will be less toweling off and no routines that resemble a batter stepping out of the box in baseball games.

"We want a captive audience," Alfano said, "like the NBA, soccer and a good movie have."

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