US still has tennis numbers, but foreign stars steal spotlight

Who will be the next great American tennis players? This year's US Open didn't exactly provide an answer, but it did offer a glimse of some of the candidates.

The American-born teens who enjoyed the greatest success were Stephanie Rehe, 16, of Highland, Calif., and Aaron Krickstein, 19, of Grosse Pointe, Mich. Both advanced to the fourth round.

Their performances, however, may not have impressed spoiled US fans, who are used to seeing such prodigies as Chris Evert Lloyd, Tracy Austin, and John McEnroe burst onto the scene.

Given the tennis boom that occurred in the United States in the 1970s, many people assumed that a succession of superstars would carry the American label.

In fact, it has not been stars and stripes forever. Even at the US Open, where the rubberized asphalt courts supposedly favor the natives, foreign-born players have largely stolen the spotlight.

The late rounds seemed to be decorated at Pier I Imports rather than out of the Sears Roebuck catalog.

Of the eight players who reached the men's and women's semifinals only Evert Lloyd was actually born in the USA.

The four finalists, amazingly enough, all came from Czechoslovakia: Ivan Lendl, Miloslav Mecir, Helena Sukova, and Martina Navratilova, who became a US citizen several years ago.

Eliminated along with Evert Lloyd in the semis were Swede Stefan Edberg and West German teens Steffi Graf, who was defeated in a rain-delayed thriller by Navratilova, 6-1, 6-7, 7-6, and Wimbledon champ Boris Becker, who lost to 16th-seeded Mecir in a major upset.

All this isn't meant to imply that there was no joy in Mudville, er, Flushing Meadow -- because the Yanks didn't entirely strike out. In fact, the tournament was notable for all the lesser-known American men who made waves. Seven were among the 16 who made it to the fourth round, and only one of these players - No. 15 Brad Gilbert - was seeded.

Two of the survivors, 84th ranked Todd Witsken and 211th-ranked Gary Donnelly, were playing in their first US Opens.

Witsken, a former all-American at Southern Cal, toppled Jimmy Connors in the third round.

Donnelly, who came through the pre-tournament qualifying, upset Anders Jarryd before losing to Becker. Gary has gained confidence through competing in satellite events and by playing ``major league'' doubles (he and partner Peter Fleming made the Wimbledon men's final this year).

Other fourth-rounders were Krickstein, wild card Dan Goldie, Matt Anger, and Tim Wilkison, a seasoned vet of 26 who captivated the crowd with his gritty determination and was the only American to make it to the quarterfinals. The run ended there, however, when he met up with Edberg, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist.

Since fellow American Paul Annacone had upset four-time winner McEnroe in the first round, the US was left without a representative in the men's semifinals for the first time since the ``open'' era began in 1968.

Even before this, some had expressed concern that the US was losing its grip at the top rungs of the sport.

In sheer numbers, there probably hasn't been any erosion. Grand Slam events are still heavily populated by Americans. But smaller countries, such as Sweden, Czechoslovakia, and West Germany, now seem to account for many of the game's budding superstars.

Especially in the case of Sweden and Czechoslovakia, much has been written about strong junior development programs, which pinpoint talented athletes at an early age and provide them with concentrated training and playing opportunities.

Lendl says construction of so many more indoor courts has been a factor in tennis's shifting balance of power.

``In the past I think tennis was successful in Australia and the United States partially because of the climate. You can play all year round,'' he says.

``When I was a kid we had one indoor court for a town of over 400,000 people. Now they have more indoor courts so kids have a better chance of practicing. It's more sophisticated. They know how to train physically outside of tennis. That just improves the sport.''

In the United States, the junior program run by the US Tennis Association has been the subject of an in-depth review. Officials are trying to determine what needs to be done to improve the system.

``I think maybe we can be a little more organized,'' says John Hubbell, captain-coach of the US Junior Davis Cup team. ``We're talking about formulating a more year-'round program instead of saying, `See you later' at the end of three months.''

But that approach may be more difficult to establish in the US than elsewhere.

``We have many people who feel strongly about a college education,'' Hubbell explains. ``But the feeling other places seems to be, `Let's push these kids into tennis. . . and see what happens.' ''

Indeed, college competition is the path taken by many American prospects. Even Connors and McEnroe played a year collegiately before dropping out and turning pro.

There's no substitute for the week-to-week grind of the tour, however, for those serious about achieving a top ranking. That's why young pros like Becker and Edberg seem so competitively mature for their years.

They also are role models back home -- perhaps more so than their US counterparts. There is just such a diversity in American sports that tennis still struggles to attract the best athletes, many of whom go into team sports like baseball, basketball, and football.

Furthermore, it's probably unrealistic to expect that transcendent tennis talents will ever grow on trees -- even in a country the size of the United States.

``I think we have some very fine players, but you don't find John McEnroes coming along every day,'' Hubbell says. ``The same thing with a Boris Becker. These guys are rare.''

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