Relax, tennis isn't dead it's too good a game to perish

July 10, 1995|By PHIL JACKMAN

Each year, tennis faces a crises of monumental proportions. It's always right around this time, before, during and after the Grand Slam events in Paris and Wimbledon and as the players fan out for tournaments scheduled everywhere but the North and South Poles.

The claim "Tennis is Dead" in big, bold headlines gets things started and corroborating evidence comes pouring in: There are no red-hot rivalries as in days of yore. Too many of the top pros are either boors or boring. The young women dominating their game grab the winner's check and scrub out in their Ferraris. The officiating is worse than in hockey.

Some tournaments still get big network play, but this is only because the demographics are right, and cable is there filling up mid-week afternoon hours. Still, the ratings, like those of golf, aren't constantly improving and threatening the numbers put up by our more popular team sports.

There, that proves it, if people aren't watching on TV, the sport must be gasping its last. Ah tennis, we knew it well, Banquo.

As predictable as these annual claims of tennis being no more popular in the eyes of the American public than archery, the 56-pound weight toss or the nordic combined are the over-reactionary counter arguments by those who regard the game the same as life itself.

Bud Collins of NBC, who was the one and only U.S. sportswriter at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club for The Championships in the early '60s, noted the other day that the sport is flourishing: "More people are talking about it [the tournament]."

Bud knows as well as anyone that tennis is discussed nearly non-stop in London during "the fortnight," but then is virtually forgotten for the following 50 weeks. Oh well, Brits have football (alias soccer), the cricket matches at Lords and, occasionally, athletics (track and field) to fill up their time and the sports pages the rest of the time, y'know.

Chris Evert, who together with Martina Navratilova carried the women's game on her back for years, gushed, "These are exciting times for women's tennis" at the thought of Monica Seles coming back to challenge Steffi Graf at the top of the heap.

Not if "Mademoiselle Squeal" returns to anything resembling the form she possessed before the hideous attack a couple of years ago. Recall, Monica had won seven of the eight preceding Grand Slam events (she skipped the eighth), usually in straight sets with hardly a noticeable dropoff in her game no matter what the surface.

By a staggering margin, the two biggest events and showpieces in the game, in order, are Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. The former is played on tricky grass, which players don't get to perform on except for about a month at the beginning of summer, and is not conducive to producing competition that can hold interest for a long period of time since the "action" lasts just a millisecond.

The Open is staged on the runway of an airport, night matches often last into the early-morning hours and Flushing Meadow fans often give the appearance of inmates mulling around during exercise period at Attica prison.

Wimbledon just finished off one of its better efforts of late with a spectacular women's final, Graf defeating Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in three sets and Boris Becker making it to his seventh final in 10 years with a dramatic comeback triumph over Andre Agassi in the men's semifinals. About all that can be said about Pete Sampras' destruction of Becker in the showdown yesterday is viewers didn't have to listen to NBC announcer Dick Enberg read us the entire Wimbledon record book. His constant mention of "three-peat" was bad enough.

Anyone who has given tennis half a chance knows what a fine game it is to participate in, spectate or maintain a rooting XTC interest in. Those on the fence of becoming interested are not served well by a constant recitation of match statistics, totally irrelevant facts and oddities and annoying announcer babble.

The media often trivializes the focus or purpose of an event by overplaying stories like Jeff Tarango flipping his lid and defaulting a match or a doubles player going fishing and telling no one of his intentions. It cheapens things and panders to a transient audience.

No matter what is said and done, though, men and women players in a half-dozen locales around the world were being instructed "Play" by chair umpires today and that doesn't count all the secondary and satellite events that serve as feeders for the tournaments grabbing the crowds and publicity. Don't forget, if last rites aren't performed over tennis by Friday, Agassi and Stefan Edberg head a 56-man field at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington next week.

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