It's the end of August and time again for the US semi-Open Tennis Championships. Why semi? Because a handful of players have made the winner's circle into their own little private club. Since the tournament moved to the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow in 1978, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors have basically taken turns winning the men's crown. The situation is much the same among the women, with Chris Evert Lloyd and Martina Navratilova capturing five of seven titles, and a currently inactive Tracy Austin accounting for the other two.
So for a sneak preview of this year's 104th US championship, which starts today and runs through Sept. 8, your best bet may be to find a friend with a VCR and good collection of past Open footage. The '85 champions almost surely will emerge from the aforementioned select company.
Or will they?
A red-headed German teen-ager has raised the expectations of a lot of players who once thought the game's superstars were destined to win the Grand Slam events.
The reference, of course, is to 17-year-old Boris Becker, who last month became the youngest and first unseeded player ever to win Wimbledon.
A year ago Becker lost the final of the junior boys' event here to Australia's Mark Kratzman, but now he makes his debut in the main 128-player drawer as the eighth-seeded player. Der Boomer, of course, is a marked man now, and won't sneak up on anybody, especially not McEnroe and Connors, who didn't get the chance to play him at Wimbledon.
If the seedings stand up, Becker would face the top-seeded McEnroe in the quarterfinals.
The world's current No. 1 players are normally installed at the head of the Open draws, but tournament officials departed from their standard procedure among the men this time when a glaring shortcoming surfaced in the computer rankings.
Due to a programming quirk, the computer elevated Ivan Lendl to No. 1, and dropped McEnroe to No. 2 -- this after McEnroe scored straight-set victories over Lendl in the finals of back-to-back tournaments.
The US Open Committee was not about to accept this verdict, especially not in light of the what these players have done here in the past. McEnroe has won four singles titles -- three straight beginning in 1979, plus last year's.
Lendl, meanwhile, has become an Avis-like figure, finishing second each of the last three years. The Czech's problems, however, go beyond the Open. He historically has had difficulty breaking through in the majors.
Third-seeded Mats Wilander's experience here is similar. In three tries he has never gotten past the quarterfinals.
Connors, No. 4, hasn't looked too threatening recently, but then Jimmy has always considered the Open his own personal oyster. He'll expend every ounce of energy to regain the throne.
After knocking off both Connors and McEnroe at Wimbledon, bullet-serving Kevin Curren (No. 5) certainly bears watching, as does No. 7 Yannick Noah.
Among the women, it is hard to choose between Evert Lloyd and Navratilova, which is why Wimbledon, in an unprecedented action earlier this summer, had them share the top seeding. The Open Committee has adhered to the current rankings, though, making Evert Lloyd No. 1 and Navratilova No. 2.
Martina, however, owns a 34-32 lifetime edge over Chris, beat her at Wimbledon, and has won the last two US Opens, defeating her chief rival each time.
Still, Evert Lloyd has enjoyed incredible success in this event, reaching nine of the last 10 finals and winning on six occasions. During the past year she has had to elevate her game to catch Navratilova. Having done so, she now talks guardedly of retiring.
In the latest issue of World Tennis she says, ``I'll be thinking that this Open might be one of the last major tournaments I'll play, and I'll try to peak for that reason. . . .''
The curtain could be coming down on one spectacular career, but it may be rising on those of 15-year-old Gabriela Sabatini of Argentina and 16-year-old Olympic champion Steffi Graf of West Germany, seeded 10th and 11th respectively.
Open crowds and reporters love a new face, and these youngsters own two of the freshest and most promising. They met in New Jersey recently in a possible preview of the game's next great female rivalry. Graf won in three sets.
They're not the only ones, however, with visions of breaking up the Chris and Martina show. Hana Mandlikova and Pam Shriver, the Nos. 3 and 4, keep figuring their time will come.
No. 5 Claudia Kohde-Kilsch conceivably has gained confidence and inspiration from what countryman Becker has accomplished, and Zina Garrison, Helena Sukova, Manuela Maleeva, and Kathy Rinaldi are knocking on the door.