Tennis 2000: Colorful characters, tough competition

In the 20th century, tennis had a long tradition of whiteness: White attire, white players, white fans, and white shoelaces.

In the 21st century, expect it to reflect Tennis Hall of Famer Bud Collins's attire: tangerine pants and red espadrilles.

At the Australian Open - which begins Monday, Andre Agassi and Martina Hingis are the top seeds - there will be a parade of colorful characters: Young, hip, and hot, these players can find an audience in a boring broadsheet or a racy tabloid.

Familiar faces, such as Steffi Graf, will be seen only in the stands. But a new generation is establishing rivalries: Hingis, the Williams sisters (Venus and Serena), and Anna Kournikova. And last week, former teenage sensation Jennifer Capriati showed her spectacular return to form with a victory over Hingis and Mary Pierce in Hong Kong.

Except for Agassi's extraordinary feats last year, the men's game, dominated by American Pete Sampras for several years, still lacks the characters and competition of the women's tour.

By changing the format of how the game is played, guardians of the sport are giving the men's events the competitive bite and rivalry that sold tennis in the Jimmy Connors-John McEnroe-Bjorn Borg era. Todd Martin, who heads the Association of Tennis Professionals' Player Council, played only three of the top eight players last year. With the exception of the Grand Slams, top players rarely showed up at the same events.

Expect that to change this year; thanks to a new ranking system known as the ATP Champions Race. It's a zero-to-hero formula. All players will start the year with zero points and begin a calendar-year race. The player who accumulates the most points will earn the No. 1 world title.

Along with the Grand Slam events, players will accumulate points by their performance in the nine most-important ATP tournaments, a series renamed the Tennis Masters. Top players are now expected to compete in the new series.

"We want fans to know - not just tennis fans, but sports fans, people who open your sports pages - to know more than just four times a year that something important in tennis is happening," said Mark Miles, chief of the ATP Tour, in a recent teleconference.

Other changes in format appear to be window dressing, but in the long haul they bode well for the sport. The alphabet soup of bodies governing the sport - the Association of Tennis Professionals Tour (ATP), the International Tennis Federation (ITF), and Grand Slam Committee - showed signs of reconciliation last month. For the first time, the three will join hands for a year-end finale called the Masters Cup for the top eight players at year's end.

Some day they plan to invite women players, too. But that will come at a price. Hingis this week threatened a possible boycott by players on the WTA tour if equal money isn't granted for Grand Slam events. If they continue to be the big draws they are now, the establishment has little choice but to yield.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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