Power Tennis Is Today's Game

High-tech rackets and booming serves alter the US Open and other Grand Slam matches

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ARRIVE early any morning of the two-week-long United States Open at the National Tennis Center, and the high-pitched power buzzing of the insects in the trees just outside the main court is the anthem of things to come.

By 10 a.m., when the big, noisy crowds start to arrive, mostly by subway, the insects are losers in the rising level of noise and excitement. And when the wallop of the first 115-miles-per-hour serve of the day is heard on the Stadium Court, the US Open validates itself as the ultimate buzz saw of power tennis on and off the court.

Of the four Grand Slam tournaments in professional tennis, the US Open is the "biggest, loudest, and most intense," says Jay Snyder, director of officials for the United States Tennis Association.

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Characterizing the other three Grand Slam tournaments, he says, "The Australian Open is the most relaxed, the French Open is the most elegant, and Wimbledon is the most traditional. And somehow it always rains at Wimbledon," he continues.

Five-time US Open winner Jimmy Connors, a crowd favorite here and an early-round loser last week to Ivan Lendl, says of the Open, "The crowd really gets into tennis. They yell. They scream, and have a good time."

Gabriela Sabatini, seeded fourth among the women, but upset by Mary Joe Fernandez in a quarterfinal, says, "It's fun to play here in New York. The crowd is good and I just love it."

Andre Agassi, this year's Wimbledon champion, who was defeated in the 1990 US Open finals by Peter Sampras, openly dislikes playing here. "With all due respect to the New York mentality," he says, the crowd "never seems like they ever settle down after the game changeovers ... they are just really enthusiastic in the New York way." (He lost to No. 1 seed Jim Courier.) A festival atmosphere

Away from the courts, the US Open enjoys a festival atmosphere. International flags and banners fly, and hawkers sell tickets and guidebooks. On the grounds near the main Stadium Court there is a bustling, aromatic international food village, half a dozen corporate hospitality tents, and dozens of booths where tennis equipment and clothing are sold. An ice cream bar sells for $2.75, and a foot-long hot dog submerged in sauerkraut or mustard is $3.75.

Despite the peculiarities and distractions at the US Open, what helps draw the top players in the world is simple: money. Prize money here is the highest anywhere for professional tennis, a total of $8.5 million for men and women this year.

Singles winners on Saturday and Sunday will take home $500,000 each. Attendance for the two weeks should set a US Open attendance record - close to 600,000, if the good weather holds.

Sweden's Stefan Edberg, last year's singles winner, says it takes time for a player to get used to the special conditions here, which include the stadium-vibrating roar of low-flying jets arriving and departing at nearby La Guardia Airport. "I wouldn't say it is the best place to play tennis," Edberg says. "It has the crowd. It has the noise. Today it can be dry and sunny, and tomorrow hot and humid."

To the delight of the fans, what the US Open displays is the high level of international competition that exists at deeper and deeper levels in the players' ranks each year. It has been several years since a seeded player, man or woman, could expect to breeze through the first few rounds on the way to the finals.

"The difference between the best and the worst is no longer as pronounced as it was 10 years ago," says Peter Archer, a retired New York businessman and tennis player who lives in Florida and tries to attend the US Open every year. "All of them hit like animals now."

Many of the women players regularly deliver a first serve that travels 90 m.p.h. or faster, as recorded on the courts by a radar gun and flashed to the spectators. And many of the men are hitting first serves that consistently reach 110 or 115 m.p.h.

At a match in Stuttgart, Germany, this year, rocket server Goran Ivanisevic served 32 aces to defeat Stefan Edberg. Many of the serves were 120 m.p.h. and higher. How game has changed

The emphasis on power over the last six or seven years appears to have changed the game. Wide-body, high-tech rackets made of lightweight graphite in the hands of powerful young players add up to a game of booming serves and shorter rallies.

Tennis with more strategy and steady ground strokes - the way Bjorn Borg, Chris Evert, and John McEnroe used to play - is less evident in many of early rounds of the Grand Slam tournaments.

Tracy Austin, a former player who won the 1979 US Open when she was 16, says the younger players are "too unimaginative and have difficulty changing" when a more seasoned opponent mixes up the game with "placement instead of power."

Jay Snyder predicts the game will continue to "level out as it grows and develops." He says, "The serve may be big now, but the consistent winners are the players on top of their mental game. At the top level, the players have the same equipment and generally the same strokes, so the mental game is the difference."

Clearly, the best players always develop their own styles and special approach to the game.

However the game changes, most American fans say they like to watch the power game. Earlier this year a USA Today poll revealed that 71 percent of the people asked were against any rules that would inhibit power play.

Michael Chang, seeded fourth here and known for the smoothness of his game, says he is trying to become a more "aggressive" player in the world of power players.

"When Jimmy Connors was 20," he says, "I don't think the game was quite as intense. I think it is much more demanding on your body and on your mind, now. Back then, maybe through the first couple of rounds [you] kind of walked a little bit, then you started to get the tougher matches. Nowadays, every match is tough."

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