New-look Australian Open no longer an afterthought Seles tops marquee field at revamped facility

January 14, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MELBOURNE, Australia -- A year ago, on the eve of the Australian Open, the women had no sponsor, no Monica Seles and equal prize money. A year ago, Pete Sampras was a gifted player with little hold on public sympathy, and Andre Agassi still had some hair left on his head.

Much has changed in the past 12 months, and when all of the world's marquee players with the exception of Steffi Graf begin slugging it out on the rubberized hard courts at Flinders Park tomorrow, even the Australian Open will be different.

Expansion has become the costly hallmark of Grand Slam tournaments in the 1990s, and since Agassi beat Sampras in last year's men's final, Flinders Park has nearly doubled in size with 11 new outside courts and a grassy square dominated by a mammoth video screen.

"This means that Flinders Park is again the world leader," said Geoff Pollard, the president of Tennis Australia.

With the U.S. Open and Wimbledon busily building, such leadership will not last long, but Pollard will settle for a form of parity with his wealthier counterparts.

Long fourth in the Grand Slam pecking order and the only one compelled by economics to have a title sponsor (Ford), the Australian Open is the biggest beneficiary of the three-year deal reached last fall with the ATP Tour.

That agreement gives extra weight to the Grand Slam events in the men's computer rankings, and more important for the Australian Open, all of the Slams now are worth the same number of points. In the past, the Australian was worth less than the others because it offered less prize money.

In order to meet the requirements of the agreement with the ATP, the tournament had to raise prize money for men significantly. It did not raise it equally for the women, prompting threats of a boycott from some players.

Ultimately, Pollard held firm -- the women will receive roughly 90 percent of what the men receive -- and the boycott fizzled, in large part because of commitments made to the new WTA tour sponsor, Corel.

"All the players were upset, but there are better solutions than a boycott," said Mary Pierce, the defending champion here.

Clearly, the best solution to what has been ailing women's tennis is Seles, who returned to the tour last summer after more than two years away and instantly re-energized the public by winning in Toronto and pounding her way to the U.S. Open final, where she narrowly lost in three sets to Graf.

Seles did not play again in 1995 because of lingering tendinitis in her knee, torn ligaments in her right ankle and a virus.

Seles was fit enough to reach today's final of the tune-up event in Sydney without losing a set.

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