Tennis still has its serve, but its volley is long gone

September 01, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

NEW YORK -- It was a tough moment for Generation X when Andre Agassi got upset about the loud music.

Mr. Rock 'n' Roll Tennis couldn't handle it a few weeks ago when promoters of a tournament tried to jazz up the crowd by playing rock music during changeovers. Agassi complained to the umpire, lost a match and whined about the noise, sounding a lot like every Ward and June Cleaver who thought Elvis was the devil back in the '50s.

We should have seen it coming, of course. First, Agassi started hanging around with Barbra Streisand, who no doubt would rather listen to Perry Como than Pearl Jam. Then he started dating Brooke Shields, the noted nonconformist. Next time you check, he'll play a match wearing tasseled loafers and a dark blue tie with little green whales on it.

Amazingly, Agassi still doesn't see the irony of his outburst. He was still complaining about the music after his first-round match at the U.S. Open the other day. What a square.

He never would have had to deal with it, of course, if not for the fact that tennis was in this gnawing period of self-analysis. A few months ago, Sports Illustrated ran a story asking the question, "Is Tennis Dying?" That was too strong, as this week's run of record Open crowds demonstrates. No, it isn't dying. But it does have the flu. It isn't as interesting as it was in the '80s, when it was alive with character, drama and really big jerks. So, suddenly, there is this great debate about what to do.

Martina Navratilova has suggested going back to wooden rackets, bringing back the lost art of shot-making. The men's tour is trying all sorts of peripheral ideas such as changeover music and giving fans a chance to interview players after matches. Others suggest that crowds should get to make noise during points, like at a football game.

Of all those, Martina's strikes closest to the heart of the matter. Oversized rackets are the worst thing that ever happened to pro tennis. Today's game is all power. There is little artistry. Too many matches don't tantalize you so much as numb you. An average talent such as Jim Courier can get to the top just clubbing the ball harder than anyone else.

Going back to wooden rackets is a great idea. There is only one thing wrong with it: It'll never happen. The manufacturers who support the game would never agree to halt progress -- and profits. So, as Roseanne Roseannadanna said, never mind.

As for the music that ignited Agassi, what's wrong with it? Every sport needs to keep changing to keep growing, and tennis isn't going to get any more popular posing as church in the Day-glo '90s. It's time for everyone to loosen up a little. Let the players dress funkier. Let the fans hoot and holler a little. Give them more of a show. All the other sports are.

There is also only one thing wrong with the idea: It's pretty much beside the point. All the music and baggy pants in the world won't cure what ails tennis most. It needs characters. Players with personality. Players that make you want to watch.

When you get to the bottom of the question of what is wrong with tennis, you find personality. The lack of it.

Jimbo and Johnny Mac had it. Chrissie and Billie Jean had it. Nastase had it. Borg had it even though he never so much as flinched on the court. They had presence, an alluring quality that sold tickets and drew fans from outside the sport. You could love them. You could hate them. Either way, you wanted to know what happened to them.

Where are those players today? Boris Becker was one, but he's almost past tense at this point, clearly not that interested in playing anymore. Pete Sampras, the world's best player, has a beautiful game, but who lives and dies with his wins and losses other than his parents? Courier? Michael Chang? Too bland.

The women's game is in the same shape, which is a sad story. Monica Seles was the real thing, a star-quality player, before she was stabbed on that court in Germany and apparently ruined. Seles had what today's players don't. She had a dramatic aura about her. She loved playing the role of the slightly naughty diva. She was willingly going to play Miss Bad to Jennifer Capriati's Miss Good. It would have been a classic rivalry. That is what tennis lacks. That is what personalities bring to any sport. Rivalries. Passion. Interest.

Thus, the problem with men's tennis isn't the regal Sampras; he's a gentleman who respects the game. The problem is that the regal Sampras doesn't have a foil. No one has come along to play Mr. Bad to his Mr. Good. Agassi had the necessary talent and the show-biz instincts, but he's too lazy to become a good enough player to challenge Sampras, and a little too likable to be a foil.

Arguing about rock music is fine, but when tennis finishes searching its soul and wrestling with what to do next, it will find itself facing this conundrum: It can't manufacture what it needs most. It needs more players that make you want to shout or clap or curse, and you can't buy or build those. They're naturals. They just happen. You can't do anything except wait for them to show up. So we wait.

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