US Open: also-ran Borg plus biggest-ever purse

Has there ever been a tennis championship quite like the United States Open, which runs sept. 1-13 in New York City?Certainly no other major tournament is situated closer to an airport runway, seats more people at center court (19,500) , or offers more prize money ($1 million). Nor has any tournament frustrated Bjorn Borg so consistently.

The Swede aspires to become the greatest player of all time, yet in nine years he's never won the Open and finds little consolation in three second-place finishes. Even before his five-year Wimbledon reign ended in July, he said a US Open victory was the crown he wanted most.

In Borg's case, possession of the title is really more important than the payoff. Other top players would say the same. But this hasn't stopped the US Tennis Association from upping this year's purse by $315,000, thus making the world's richest tournament considerably richer in its centennial year.

Money is the international language of tennis these days, and the USTA obviously speaks it better than anyone else. Oodles of dollars may make for tension-packed, high-stakes tennis, but they can't buy love.

For any number of reasons, the Open hardly rates as a favorite stop among the palyers. Some miss the redcarpet tretment offered elsewhere. Others dislike New York. Still others, especially South American and European clay-courters, pass up the lone major hardcourt tournament altogether.

At one point, the women's player union, disgruntled by perceived slights, threatened to boycott this year's championship. The Women's Tennis Association considered holding an alternative $500,000 event at the New Jersey Meadowlands. Many top players favored the idea, but the USTA's willingness to increase the women's prize money, enlarge the draw from 96 to 128 players, and feed more money into the grass-roots development of the women's game influenced the WTA to cancel its boycott plans.

Another thing the women angled for and will get is more television coverage. CBS has agreed to air their semifinal matches on Sept. 11, preventing the men's matches from eclising the women's during the last days.

Ironically, what most people probably remember about recent Opens are the teenage girls, who've turned the Open into a debutante ball.

Defending champion Chris Evert Lloyd launched the trend a decade ago when she reached the semifinals as a precocious 16-year-old. Then came Tracy austin (the '79 winner), Pam Shriver, Andrea Jaeger, and Hana Mandlikova. This year's media darling may be Floridian Kathy Rinaldi, who, at 14, became the youngest woman professional in history earlier this summer.

Basically, if a player's going to make a big splash, the time to do it is at the Open. To go on a rampage at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow Park, Queens, is worth loads in media exposure, and perhaps in endorsement income. The Open epitomizes tennis gone public, turned into the lap of the masses. In a sense, the setting has only recently caught up with the name, for the face of tennis began changing in 1968, when pros were first permitted to play in the US national championship, helping to launch the big-money, "Open" era.

The aristocratic auro that grew up arond tennis was pretty much squeezed out of the Open when it moved from Forest Hills in 1978. Oh,sure, the upper classes can still retreat to corporate tents or sample oysters on the half shell, but the prevailing atmosphere is more major league ballpark than country club.

The game's gentility has fallen away, coarse behavior has emerged. And not just among the men. At the Canadian Open two weeks ago, several women players were involved in tantrums and protests. "Everybody is so tense now," Evert Lloyd said after the incidents. "Everybody is so competitive."

During recent months, five players have battled at the top of the women's game. They are Evert Lloyd, Austin, Mandlikova, Jaeger, and Martina Navratilova.

Evert Lloyd capped a comback of sorts last September by winning her fifth Open in six years. Her ability to block out distractions will make the tournament's top-seeded female hard to dethrone.

Navratilova has the game, but maybe not the concentration. Some think the same may be true of Mandlikova, who took the first set in last year's final before collapsing. Hana consistently plays well in the big tournaments, however , and is the only player, male or female, to reach the finals in the last four "majors" -- 1980 US Open, '81 Australian and French Opens, and Wimbledon.

Though bothered recently with a shoulder problem, Jaeger enters her third Open with newfound confidence, gleaned from the biggest victory of her career at last month's US Clay Court Championship. Austin has to be brimming with confidence, too, having recovered completely from injury to beat Shriver, Navratilova, and Evert Lloyd en route to the Canadian Open title.

Confidence played a large part in Borg's run at Wimbledon, yet some wonder if he can muster up enough of it after so many frustrating defeats in the US championship.

Since 1974, the Open has had nothing but left-handed men champions, and nothing but American winners among both men and women since moving to Flushing Meadow. If Borg should reach the final, it would surprise no one if he met his arch rival, John McEnroe, a New York southpaw who's chasing his third straight Open win.

Matches between the two have become the classics of the day, with Borg holding a narrow 7-6 lead in their 13 career meetings. McEnroe broke Borg's Grand Slam bid with a five-set victory in last year's Open final, and then followed up by ending Bjorn's Wimbledon streak in July.

One or the other should win this goround. But don't count out three-time Open champion Jimmy Connors, who's fiercely determined to secure another major title. And if the top seeds falter, Czech Ivan Lendl or Argentine Jose-Luis Clerc could step into the void. Though primarily a clay-court specialist, Clerc arrives in New York as the season's hottest player, the winner of 25 straight matches and four tournaments.

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