Tennis booster Pam Shriver says her game is far from last gasp

September 27, 1994|By BILL TANTON

Pam Shriver, who brings the ninth annual Tennis Challenge to the Arena Thursday night, winced when she saw the headline last spring.

The cover of Sports Illustrated showed a big, yellow tennis ball and asked the question: "Is Tennis Dying?"

Throughout the sport, people took note.

They realized their sport had been diminished by the lack of a charismatic men's star and the disappearance from the women's tour of No. 1 Monica Seles and rising teen Jennifer Capriati.

What's more, tennis has been off in sales -- of equipment, at the box office, in sponsorships.

Few persons are as qualified as Shriver to judge the health of tennis.

On Jan. 1 she will have been on the tour 17 years. She is 32 years old and still playing, singles and doubles. She is still on the governing council of the Women's Tennis Association, though Martina Navratilova has been elected president after three years of Shriver's presidency.

"Tennis dying?" Shriver was saying after a workout at Bare Hills. "I would never go so far as to say that.

"We've had problems. But I still see enthusiastic crowds at tournaments even in the U.S. (Shriver expects the usual turnout of 10,000 here).

"Tennis is getting healthier. The women's game is stronger than it was six months ago.

"Mary Pierce has become an attraction since she creamed Steffi Graf in the semis and went to the finals of the French Open. Conchita Martinez won Wimbledon. Now she's a name.

"The day after Baltimore, I leave for Switzerland to play in a tournament that was supposed to mark Capriati's return, although she has had to withdraw because of a groin pull.

"Pete Sampras is No. 1 among the men and people complain that he's boring. He's not controversial, but he's definitely not boring. And he's a great guy. People are going to appreciate that as he continues to play."

What about the hirsute new U.S. Open champion, Andre Agassi?

"I like Agassi very much," Shriver said emphatically. "I'm sure there are people -- especially older people -- who will never approve of his unshaven face and his hair. But Agassi is a very nice person -- very sensitive, very considerate. Kids love him.

"Having Agassi as the reigning U.S. Open champion has to help the sport in America."

And then there are America's Jensen brothers, Murphy and Luke, who practically stole the show at the U.S. Open with their fun-loving approach to doubles. Shriver is all for the Jensens.

"I'm for anybody who can bring people into the tennis fold," Shriver said. "At least I'm for them within reason."

Some people may be surprised to learn that Shriver likes Agassi and the clowning Jensens. Her history -- her upper-class background, her education at McDonogh School, where she is now a board member (she's also on the board at Loyola College), her ongoing friendship with President Bush, with whom she played tennis this summer in Maine -- might suggest otherwise.

Shriver has never shied away from controversial types. If she had, she probably wouldn't have John McEnroe playing here this week.

"John and I have been friends for a long time," she said. "He joined the tour in '77. I broke in in '78.

"I didn't expect to have McEnroe here. He had an offer for this date from Japan that was unbelievable. When that didn't materialize he and I talked at the U.S. Open and he said he'd love to come here and give something back."

For all the players due here, which includes former No. 1 Jim Courier and U.S. Open semifinalist Todd Martin, giving back is the idea.

In its first eight years, Shriver's Tennis Challenge -- actually the Signet Bank Challenge presented by The Baltimore Sun -- has raised nearly $1.4 million for local children's charities.

By now Shriver has become one of Baltimore's most distinguished citizens. She's even a small part-owner of the Orioles, though she never calls principal owner Peter Angelos to give him her ideas on how to run the club.

"I could call him," she said, "but he's busy and I don't disagree with anything he's done."

No one knows how much longer Shriver will continue on the tour. Not even she knows.

"There's no retirement date in the sand that means I'll stop," she said. "I want to play tennis all my life. I love to play tennis.

"But the transition has already started. Mostly doubles now. Not as many tournaments. A couple years from now I'll wake up one day and say, 'Gee, I only played six tournaments this year.' "

For an athlete, Shriver has a keen sense of transition.

"The McEnroe-Connors, Evert-Navratilova era was great," she said, "but it's gone. There are other wonderful new players on the scene now. Tennis is a long way from dying."

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