Tennis returns to Olympics; Rockets eye dream front line

As one of the most universally played sports, tennis belongs in the Olympics. Organizers of the first modern Olympics felt that way, and so too does this summer's Los Angeles host committee, which requested that tennis be placed back in the Olympics after a long absence.

Few realize that tennis was one of only five sports to appear in each of the first eight Olympics, beginning in 1896. When it was eventually dropped, the Davis Cup, which had begun in 1900, was well established as a global tennis competition. The sport's present reinstatement is not exactly total, since it will only be a demonstration event in L.A., just as it was at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. No medals will be awarded, but tennis has been approved as a competition sport for the 1988 Games in Seoul. However, that could change if the Olympics were moved from Korea to avoid potential boycott snags. The host committee reserves the right to designate two demo sports, the other being baseball this time.

Because the Olympics theoretically ban professionals, their appearance in tennis will naturally come as a surprise. But officials have decided to determine eligibility by age, with 20 the cutoff point.

Consequently, anyone 20 or under can represent his or her country, even Sweden's Mats Wilander, the 1982 French Open champion. Wilander has indicated his desire to compete, as have American pros Andrea Jaeger, Kathy Horvath, and Jimmy Arias. The three Americans will receive automatic wild card entries into the Olympics rather than be required to qualify for the US team at the May 28 -June 2 tournament at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow, N.Y.

The basis for their qualifying exemption, made in part because of a conflict with the French Open, is that each player ranks among the world's top 20.

The caliber of competition, therefore, should be quite high, and certainly light years ahead of what it was at the 1896 Olympics in Athens, when the best players stayed away. John Pius Boland, an Irish tourist in Greece that year, took advantage of the situation to win the men's singles title.

Homerless all-stars

Many good hitters are not long-ball threats, but almost all connect every now and then. Even Rod Carew, the California Angels' superlative singles hitter, manages to lift a few balls out of the park each year. In fact, he hit his third home run of the season in Tuesday's 3-1 loss to the rampaging Detroit Tigers. Carew exhibited greater power during the mid '70s, when he belted 37 homers over a three-year span, a fact generally forgotten.

The only goose egg he ever laid in the home run department came in 1972. That, however, makes him the headliner of a unique all-star team selected by Barry Sparks in the Baseball Digest. Sparks dug through records to find players who batted .300, but went homerless during an entire season. Most of the players were drawn from the last 20 years, including second baseman Carew, shortstop Maury Wills (Dodgers '63), and outfielders Greg Gross (Astros '74), Matty Alou (Pirates '68), and Gene Clines (Pirates '72).

The hard part came in filling the traditional power-hitting positions - catcher and first and third base. There were no modern-era candidates, so Sparks completed the lineup with Billy Goodman (Red Sox '49) at first, Cecil Travis (Senators '35) at third, and Muddy Ruel (Senators '23) behind the plate.

Pro basketball's big flip

This has not been the best of weeks for the National Basketball Association's Portland Trail Blazers. First they were fined $250,000, the stiffest penalty in league history, for making indirect but illegal contact with two seven-foot college centers, Houston's Akeem Olajuwon and Georgetown's Patrick Ewing. Then on Wednesday, the club lost the right to take Olajuwon in the NBA's June 19 draft when the Houston Rockets won a coin flip between the two teams.

Rather than simply letting the league's worst team pick first (a situation that might encourage losing), the last-place finishers from each conference flip for the No. 1 selection. Though a playoff team this season, Portland had acquired the top choice of the Indiana Pacers, who finished last in the Eastern Conference. Houston, last in the West, also claimed the first pick in the 1983 draft, when it selected 7 ft. 4 in. Ralph Sampson.

''Even though we already have Sampson, I don't see us trading Olajuwon,'' said Rockets owner Charlie Thomas. ''It would be something to have Sampson and Olajuwon playing side-by-side.''

With such a wealth of riches, however, Houston is bound to hear some mighty tempting trade offers. The Los Angeles Lakers, who must think about replacing center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after next season, could wind up suggesting some of the better deals.

The Rockets understandably would hesitate to trade either player, and especially Olajuwon, a Nigerian who became a big crowd favorite in leading the University of Houston to the NCAA champion-ship game the last two years. Portland expects to take Kentucky's seven-foot Sam Bowie with the No. 2 choice.

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