Chang-Agassi is nice rivalry throwback

September 06, 1994|By PHIL JACKMAN

Rivalries. Perhaps even more so than records or individual performances, they are the engine room of sports, the things that keep us coming back, clamoring for more.

Sure, Jack Dempsey was a fearsome and charismatic fighter, but where would he be without Jack Tunney and the famed 14-second non-knockout?

One too many times, the great John L. Sullivan bragged "I can lick any man in the house," for in the crowd that evening was a fancy-dan named James J. Corbett.

'Tis said that even before Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees by a New York carpetbagger and Red Sox owner Harry Frazee that the people in Boston would just as soon beat the Pinstripes as go to heaven.

In college football, the list is nearly endless, depending upon location and history. For every high-profile Auburn-Alabama or Southern Cal-UCLA bloodlet, there's Lafayette playing Lehigh, Amherst going against Williams or Harvard and Yale deciding the future of the country (Wall Street) in The Game.

And where do you start with Notre Dame? First, it was Army, then Southern Cal and just about anyone that made it onto its schedule. Just yesterday, the book "Natural Enemies" arrived in the office detailing the "Irish-Michigan football feud."

Wait, over the last 107 years, these two have played just 25 times, no meetings occurring between the years 1909-1942 and 1943-1978. But in the seasons since, a series of classics, nine of 14 games being determined by a total of only 26 points.

Basketball? Celtics and Lakers. North Carolina and Duke. Indiana vs. the Big Ten, Kentucky against the SEC and UCLA and John Wooden against the world for more than a decade.

While it was the Dodgers and Giants who are probably the most fabled if not the longest adversarial relationship on the diamond, it usually came to pass that the victor between these representatives from Brooklyn and Manhattan had cause to celebrate only until they were beaten by the representative from the South Bronx in the World Series. Talk about a neighborhood rivalry.

Hockey had the Montreal Canadiens against any other NHL team that was good for so long, the casual fan could be excused for thinking it was a two-team league. The U.S. against the juggernaut under the red flag with sickle and hammer played awfully well in the Olympics, too.

Throughout the recorded history of sports in this country, a certain something made for gripping rivalries, be they team or in the individual sports. And rare is it when hype alone was able to turn the trick.

Golf enjoyed its Ben Hogan-Sam Snead era clearly because these two were the best once Byron Nelson slipped. The same was true later when the "Big Three" of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player not were only the best, but offered such a compelling contrast on the links.

Years ago in tennis, the top of the line was nearly as clearly marked as it was in golf and the likes of Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez, Lew Hoad, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, Stan Smith and John Newcombe always had a Ken Rosewall, Tony Trabert, Ilie Nastase, Tony Roche or Vic Seixas hot on their heels.

The game's heyday as far as rivalries are concerned probably started when Jimmy Connors gained the right to vote and, in quick order, along came Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl. The contrasting styles and personalities together with TV led to a boom that tennis has been begging for since.

Once again, it's worthwhile to mention that a rivalry springs forth for no well-defined reason other than things seem to fall into place naturally. Yes, the game would be helped if the mano-a-mano pushed over the weekend at the U.S. Open, Andre Agassi vs. Michael Chang, came to be. But it is not to be rushed and helped along with phony hype.

As in boxing, (contrasting) styles make a fight and these two play the game a little bit too much alike to create classic confrontations. Yesterday's five-setter at Flushing Meadow, won by Agassi, was interesting, but Andre's winning the first and fifth sets by 6-1 scores, the former in just 23 minutes, suggested a mismatch.

While Chang digs and digs and improves each aspect of his game inch by inch, the more-gifted Agassi seems to have trouble elevating tennis to the top spot on his priority list, leading to why he is ranked No. 20 and unseeded in the tournament.

It's a tough situation when you're attempting to make a scrambler best suited to the clay and a guy who appears just as enthused making a commercial as playing into your headliners. One has physical restrictions and the other lacks the resolve to take a shot at the top and it's not likely anyone will challenge No. 1 Pete Sampras a sufficient amount of time to be mentioned in the same breath in the near future.

Hey, maybe Steffi Graf could be talked into signing on as an astronaut and Chris and Martina can be talked into one more go-around.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.