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NEW YORK TIMES. <br />December 2, 2001

Tennis Needs to Find Updated Vision <br />By PETE BODO

A few weeks ago, at the year-end Sanex WTA Tour Championships in Munich, a potential dream final between two fetchingly different personalities from the United States, Lindsay Davenport and Serena Williams, was ruined when Davenport came up lame and had to concede the match. Shortly thereafter, at the ATP Tour's championships in Sydney, Australia, 20-year-old Lleyton Hewitt, as combative as a badger, became the youngest man to earn the year-end No. 1 ranking while winning the Masters Cup.

There was a time, and not that long ago, when all this would have mattered to the American audience, when a new generation of die-hard tennis fans traipsed off to the arena dressed in tennis togs, filling the joint for the Tours' championships. Who from that era can forget the buzz generated by the clash at a packed Madison Square Garden in January 1977 between Jimmy Connors and Guillermo Vilas (Vilas won, 7-5 in the third), or the 1976 Virginia Slims final between Chris Evert and Evonne Goolagong in Los Angeles (Goolagong won, 6-3, 5-7, 6-3)?

Those days have melted into the historical fog, fit for reinvention for a baffled audience on whatever nostalgia show ESPN happens to develop next, because tennis in the United States increasingly struggles to remain a blip on the radar screen of the sporting public's consciousness. Did you sit rapt before the television screen, trying to transmit vibes that, short of morphing Yevgeny Kafelnikov into Connors, would at least make Kafelnikov play as if he actually cared?

These are difficult days for tennis. I have covered the sport for 25 years, and the one thing I am pretty sure about is that it deserves a fate better than being locked in mortal combat for attention and television rating numbers with figure skating.

Oh, the evangelists for the game, paid and otherwise, will tell you that women's tennis broke ratings records this summer, peaking with the United States Open final between the Sisters Sledgehammer, Venus and Serena Williams. (With a 6.8 rating, all or part of that match was said to have been watched by an estimated 22.7 million viewers.) The ATP Tour will point to consistently growing attendance figures at many of its touraments worldwide, and the United States Tennis Association will throw some numbers at you to demonstrate the massive popularity and success of the Open.

And therein lies a big part of the problem: with every passing year, the Open looks more and more like an entertainment spectacle at which a little tennis is played to legitimize the event, kind of a sporty Lalapalooza for baby boomers. I don't think this is what Billie Jean King had in mind when she insisted on describing tennis players as entertainers. I don't think this is what Jimmy Connors was fantasizing about when he declared his intention to turn the Open into an event that New York cabbies would rant and rave about to their fares. Tennis, it sometimes seems, is a sport that has lost not only its dedicated constituency but also its identity.

And there is a clear reason that tennis continues to send bizarre signals from a strange, conflicted netherworld found somewhere between a Backstreet Boys concert and Wimbledon. Until 1968, the major tournaments were contested by amateurs only, and the game was tightly run by sometimes autocratic national federations under the umbrella of the International Tennis Federation. When the distinction between pros and amateurs was abolished and prize money entered the game, neither the International Tennis Federation nor the self-interested new entrepreneurs could agree on where the fledging pro game was heading, much less shepherd it there.

Tennis thus experienced a series of bloodbaths and palace coups, rather than a velvet revolution. Over the years, the internecine battles have drained the color from the game's face and saddled it with confusing, multiple personalities. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with Andre Agassi playing a match dressed like a pirate. But is that what tennis is, or is it Pete Sampras in simple whites, against the backdrop of Wimbledon's pale green lawns, or can it be both ? and a few other things to boot?

The best way to understand the plight of tennis is to look at golf, once its demographic sister and rival. Unlike tennis, golf did not have a revolution. And when it had the good fortune to produce a few stereotype-busting personalities like John Daly and Tiger Woods, enough of a leadership structure existed to keep the game from going off ? like tennis ? in a thousand directions at once and ending up nowhere special.

Golf certainly has its share of problems, beginning with the same basic challenge that tennis or any other "upscale" sport faces ? how to be exclusive without being exclusionary. But golf knows what it is, and it recognizes the value and the powerful, if not wholly universal, appeal of its traditions and aesthetics. In tennis, the idea that the fans ought to be quiet while the ball is in play has always been considered an evil vestige of the game's snooty roots. So how come nobody is vigorously encouraging people in the golf galleries to shout and scream when the players are putting? Golf has kept its identity.

The awful irony here is that tennis may have become a game full of personalities but without an identity. The one thing that has not changed about tennis is that the personalities of the players are intrinsic to its appeal, which is why the people seated behind you in Louis Armstrong Stadium during the Open feel free to discuss the personal life of Jennifer Capriati without ever having met her. They don't really do that with Mario Lemieux or Curtis Martin.

These days, with the notable exception of Agassi, even the very best players have ever- shorter careers at the top, and thus the most dominant personalities and de facto ambassadors for the sport are increasingly callow. James Joyce once described Ireland, his mother country, as "the sow that eats her young." In tennis, it's the other way around: it's the young who eat the sow. The players are probably too rich and famous too fast for their own good, or anyone else's. They can be imperious, treating even their wiser, older managers as footmen, which is the dirty secret that no agent ever wants to divulge.

The degree of loyalty to the game these days may be at a historical low, although the men of the ATP Tour seem to be just slightly more receptive to the mandate to grow the game than do the women. Consider the saga of the Williams sisters: for Richard Williams to develop his daughters into dominant champions while interacting very little with the official structure of the game was an astonishing triumph of the will. But lacking longstanding alliances, proven loyalties or debts of friendship or assistance, none of the Williamses feels any obligation whatsoever to the game. And why should they?

These issues, and how they have played out in public (no sport hangs its dirty laundry out as boldly and self-damagingly as tennis) have helped tennis evolve into the sport the media loves to hate, and that only adds to the challenge of winning back ground and turning the pro game around. That probably could be accomplished, with three steps:

? First, the administrators must have a summit to redefine the identity of the game: what it represents, whom it seeks to reach, and how it proposes to get that message out.

? Second, the constituents, including the top players, must agree to support this common vision.

? Third, a commissioner must be selected, because that would be a necessary condition for success in the other two areas.

The tennis boom of the 1970's resulted from the sudden mass discovery of tennis as a fascinatingly subtle, textured game, played in appealing sites by an elite, international corps of men and women who shared a strong group ethic ? and even a dress code.

That may not be the identity tennis needs in 2002, but that it needs one of some kind is certain.
 
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