The richest tennis tourney -- and maybe the hardest

The US Open, which begins here Tuesday, may well be the hardest tennis tournament in the world to win. That Sweden's Bjorn Borg, the five- time Wimbledon champion, has never won it possibly confirms that notion.

One observer has said Wimbledon confers knighthood upon its champions, while the Open awards heavyweight title belts. The comparison hints at the unique challenges of winning here.

Playing the world's richest tournament is a grind. The Open comes at the end of the summer circuit and entails two weeks of sweat-wrenching labor on hard courts planted under a canopy of roaring jets (compliments of neighboring La Guardia Airport).

Additional tests are provided by switching back and forth between day and night matches and playing in the carnival-like atmosphere of the National Tennis Center, a gleaming 16 1/2-acre complex situated on the old World's Fair grounds in Flushing Meadow.

Players at the Open are not as pampered as they often are at smaller events, and the atmosphere, a hurried one, is a far cry from the ambiance at many more leisurely tour stops.

But, hey, this is New York, the raucous, hustle-bustle, media capital of the world. Athletes like Reggie Jackson thrive here, others just survive.

Maybe it's significant then that defending champion John McEnroe and Vitas Gerulaitis, a pair of New Yorkers who live within driving distance of the tournament, reached the men's final last year.

That the parties to this unique "subway series" generated no more loyalty than they did, however, points up another aspect of the Open -- its unpredictable crowds.

You're never sure who the paying customers are going to side with or how they may behave. That became all too evident last year during what Sports Illustrated called "the ugliest incident in the history of American tennis." An unruly crowd filled the air with boos, obscenities, and beer cans when Ilie Nastase was penalized for stalling during an evening match.

Granted, this was a freakish occurrence, yet spectators are generally less inhibited than they are at Wimbledon, for example. The Open complex engenders no ties to past traditions, and the main stadium, the largest for tennis in the world with 19,500 seats, seems to encourage ballpark informality.

Though this is the US championship, spectators do not necessarily cheer along nationalistic lines. Consequently, if the American players have a home-court advantage it lies in the courts themselves, which are a medium-fast hard surface well suited to the native talent.

So far they have served the cause of American tennis well, shutting out foreign clay-court specialists from the finals while producing nothing but home-grown champions: Jimmy Connors and McEnroe on the men's side of the ledger and Chris Evert Lloyd and Tracy Austin on the women's.

At 20 and 16, respectively, McEnroe and Austin gave last year's tournament an American Bandstand quality by becoming the youngest pair of champions. Meanwhile Borg, Martina Navratilova, and Evonne Goolagong saw their disheartening Open droughts extended. None of these players have ever won the Open, though together they own nine Wimbledon crowns.

Borg's absence in the winner's circle is the most glaring and one he must end this year to keep his Grand Slam hopes alive. For the third straight year he has won the first two legs of the slam, the French and Wimbledon championships, and now needs to secure the US and Australian titles to sweep "the big four." Rod Laver last achieved the feat in 1969.

Now, two weeks after he defaulted the Canadian Open final with an injured knee, questions linger about his readiness to compete.

Borg, of course, has come to know frustration at the Open. During the last four years he has lost two finals to Jimmy Connors, one while nursing an ailing thumb.

During the past two decades the Open has never had the same men's champion twice in a row, a pattern that would mean the end of McEnroe's reign if continued. Actually it should be Connors's turn to win, since he's made a habit of picking up the title in even- numbered years (1974, 1976, and 1978).

Connors started off the year gloriously enough with US Pro Indoor and WCT titles, but some wonder if the intensity is still there to come through a major 128-man draw. Says CBS tennis commentator Tony Trabert, "I think he's lost some of his single-mindedness toward the game."

Of course, some thought the same had happened to Chris Evert after she married British player John Lloyd. She's proved them wrong this year, though, by winning the French and Italian Opens and moving to the top of the money-winning list.

She also reached the Wimbledon final, where she lost to Evonne Goolagong, another rejuvenated veteran. The first mother to win the big "W" in 66 years, Goolagong has been on the comeback trail from injuries. Sadly, however, the recurrence of back problems could hamper her here.

Starting in 1971, when a whiz kid named Evert burst onto the scene, the women's draw has become a teen showcase. Sixteen-year- olds Pam Shriver and Tracy Austin became the Open's youngest finalist and champion during the past two years, and some think 1980 could be the year 15-year-old Andrea Jaeger makes her mark.

Actually, she got her feet wet last year when in her first Open match ever she lost to Austin. She probably won't win here, but a semifinal or even a final berth is not out of the question.

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