US Open Promises Fitting End to Rambunctious Season

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When at Wimbledon, do as the Brits do, quietly. When at the French Open, be chic. But when at the US Open, you can have a wild and crazy time.

As play opens today at the New York tournament that punctuates the close of the tennis season by deciding once and for all who are the best in the world, players are most likely anticipating more - of everything. More heat and humidity, more fans, more noise, more media attention, and more money.

"Every single year there's somebody trying to prove something, and the Open is a big decider," says Mary Carillo, a former player now broadcasting tennis events for CBS TV. "It settled things last year when Pete [Sampras] beat Andre [Agassi] and when Monica [Seles]" announced she was back by taking Steffi Graf to three sets in the final, she adds.

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Combine those players trying to make history with New York dynamics and you have two combustible weeks of tennis.

The New York City backdrop pits new-world metropolitan chutzpah against the old-world charm of the other grand slams - starched and polished Wimbledon, the elegant French Open, and the casual, laid-back Australian Open.

"It's one of a kind," says Argentine Guillermo Vilas, who beat Jimmy Connors in the 1977 Open. Vilas says the crowd has a special "communion" with the players unlike any other tournament."When I won, people went to the court and lifted me in their arms and carried me around the court. That's the only time that happened in my career," he says.

American players, for their part, seem to thrive on the raucous clamor of the 20,000 fans who attend the big matches. Witness the crowd-pleasing play (and antics) of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. Or the quieter but not less appreciated championship play of Chris Evert and Tracy Austin.

Connors's antics

Connors's aggressive play and caustic comments had the crowds at Forest Hills (former site of the Open) and Flushing Meadows booing him off the courts in the late '70s, but those same fans cheered him on to crowd-pleasing moments and matches in 1991. (He played a four-hour, 35-minute match that lasted until 1:30 a.m. on his 39th birthday, defeating Patrick McEnroe 4-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 in the first round, and went on to play in the semis.)

Where else in the world, Vilas asks, would you have a crowd that turned against its own - Connors - when he was "behaving like a bad boy" in the 1977 Open. But after Connors changed his ways, the crowd "forgave him right away and made the [US Open] his favorite home," adds Vilas, who now plays the Nuveen Tour that stages 14 events around the world for players over 35.

The newer New York fans go wild for Andre Agassi and Monica Seles, who returned to tennis last year after a two-year absence because she was stabbed in the back at a match in Germany by a fan of Steffi Graf's. When either Agassi or Seles entered the Stadium or adjoining Grandstand courts last year, the noise level was beyond bearable. Dozens of photographers lined up at the net awaiting their arrival, compared with a handful for the other stars.

That crowd also has warmed over the years to the more reserved Pete Sampras, the No. 1 seed who now has three US Open titles and wants badly to make it four in order to salvage an otherwise dismal year on the tour.

But if the US Open follows the pattern of this year's other grand slam events - on the male side of the draw at least - anything can happen.

The three previous grand slams have seen six different, and often surprising finalists. Boris Becker, who is struggling to make a comeback, had a dramatic resurgence and upended Michael Chang at the Australian Open. Two unseeded players - Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Michael Stich - met in the French Open final, with Kafelnikov claiming the big check. And after many top seeds tumbled during early rounds at Wimbledon, Richard Krajicek, the first man from the Netherlands to win a grand slam title, bested America's MaliVai Washington on Centre Court. Washington, inspired by Arthur Ashe, was only the second black man to play in the Wimbledon final.

Boycott threatened

This year's US Open draw didn't follow the ATP tour rankings. After some players threatened to boycott, tournament officials for the first time redrew the draw, changing some of the matches but not the seeds. Agassi, for example, is ranked No. 8 in the world, but is seeded No. 6 for the Open. Michael Chang is ranked No. 3 behind Thomas Muster, but seeded No. 2. Yevgeny Kafelnikov, ranked No. 4, is seeded No. 7. It opens up the draw so all the star players - especially Agassi - have a better chance of making it to the semifinals. It also opens the possibility of an Agassi-Sampras final.

"This will be a very eventful draw," Carillo says. "All kinds of crazy stuff will happen."

A colleague of Carillo's agrees. "I think we can expect a lot of upsets," says Barry MacKay, a CBS and USA Network tennis commentator. "There are a lot of good young players. Take Alex O'Brien for example," he says. O'Brien, who was ranked No. 169 in the world, got into the Pilot Pen International tournament in New Haven, Conn., last weekend as a wild card entry. He upset Kafelnikov in the quarterfinals, Mark Philippoussis in the semis, and Jan Siemerink in the finals - all seeded players.

"It's going to be a dogfight," says Roscoe Tanner, former tennis great who now plays the Nuveen Tour. "There are a lot of guys in there with a chance."

Upsets possible

The women's draw is expected to produce more predictable results, tennis experts say. Graf and Seles are the favorites for the final, with Arantxa Sanchez Vicario hanging right in there. Unlike the men's draw, the women's pretty much stuck to the rankings.

But upsets are possible here too. American Lindsay Davenport beat Sanchez Vicario to win the Olympic gold medal last month in Atlanta. And last weekend, she beat Graf in the semis and Anke Huber in the finals at the Acura Classic in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

"I think Lindsay beating Steffi puts a new twist on the draw," says Tracy Austin, who captured Open titles in 1979 and 1981. "I think Lindsay just needed a little bit more confidence. She's always had the game."

Besides Davenport, other young women are playing their way to the top and could cause trouble here. American Chanda Rubin could do some damage if she's fully recovered from a wrist injury. And the Swiss 15-year-old Martina Hingis, whose style of play has been compared to Chris Evert and Gabriela Sabatini, has a chance. She beat Graf last winter in Rome - one of only three losses Graf allowed this year.

"Women are sort of where men were 10 or 15 years ago," says John McEnroe. "There's a small group of people who dominated over the other players. That's slowly starting to change."

But Graf is still the favorite. "Graf is such a big match player you can't count her down and out - never," Carillo says.

US OPEN RUNDOWN

1996: Sweden's Stefan Edberg retires after the US Open, but not before setting a record. This will be the 54th consecutive Grand Slam tournament - 13-1/2 years of playing every Australian, French, US, and Wimbledon tournament - for the two-time Open winner.

This year marks the first time that men's and women's finals will be played on the same day - Sunday, Sept. 8.

1991: Andre Agassi knocks off a record five seeded players to become the first unseeded player to win the Open men's singles.

1990: At 19, Pete Sampras becomes the youngest men's singles champion.

1988: Steffi Graf wins her first US Open title to complete the first Grand Slam since Margaret Court in 1970.

1982: Chris Evert wins the last of her six Open titles.

1979: Tracy Austin becomes the youngest US Open champion at 16.

1978: The US Open moves to the hard courts at Flushing Meadows. Evert wins her fourth title and Jimmy Connors his third, making him the only player to win the Open on three different surfaces: (grass - 1974, clay - 1976, and hard - 1978).

1977: John McEnroe and Tracy Austin make their first appearances in the last US Open played on the clay courts in Forest Hills. Guillermo Vilas defeats defending champion Jimmy Connors, and Chris Evert captures her third Open title.

1976: Americans Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert win the men's and women's titles to help celebrate the US bicentennial.

1975: Nightime matches debut at the Open. It is still the only Grand Slam event to feature night games.

1973: Women's prize money is made equal to men's.

1971: Sixteen-year-old Chris Evert makes her Open debut.

1968: Arthur Ashe wins the first US Open men's singles crown, defeating Tom Okker of the Netherlands. Ashe was also the first black man to win a Grand Slam championship. But because he played with amateur status, he wasn't eligible to claim the $14,000 prize - at that time the richest in tennis. He took home $280 in expenses instead.

Britain's Virginia Wade upset top-seeded Billie Jean King to collect women's prize.

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