Carnival-like New York scene gives US Open special excitement

You know it's US Open tennis time in the Big Apple when ... designer tennis wear becomes fashionable on the Flushing-bound subway;

scalpers and T-shirt hawkers dot the boardwalk leading to the National Tennis Center;

lights illuminate the center court in Louis Armstrong Stadium for night sessions;

and Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Chris Evert, and friends make sports headlines as large as the Mets and Yankees in all three major New York dailies.

By the same token, the players know they've arrived in the year's last major tournament, which begins today and runs through Sept. 13, when they have to contend with jets thundering in and out of nearby LaGuardia Airport and fork over almost as much for a ham and Swiss on rye as it costs to stay in a low-budget motel. Ah, New York, it can seem an alien planet, and thus it is that some players never quite adjust or do so rather slowly. As great as Bjorn Borg was, for instance, he never won here. It took Martina Navratilova about a decade of trying before she broke through with her first win in 1983 (since followed by two more titles, including last year's).

Ivan Lendl was frustrated for awhile, too, finishing as the runner-up three straight years. Gradually, however, Lendl has come to feel totally at home here - in fact, he commutes from his house in Greenwich, Ct. Surely this has helped him in capturing the last two men's crowns, and setting up this year's bid for a third at the United States Tennis Association complex, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary in Flushing Meadow, situated in Queens.

The only other men to win on the Meadow's medium-fast hard courts are eighth-seeded McEnroe (four times) and Connors (three times). Connors, who turns 35 tomorrow, is the highest seeded American at No. 6 and a crowd favorite for his emoting, gritty style. He may have invented his trademark double-fisted, body-pumping gyrations at the Open, which he also won on both grass (1974) and clay (1976) before it moved out of the West Side Tennis Club.

``I love playing here,'' he says. ``I play like a maniac for a bunch of maniacs.''

Jimbo may be in his element, but if he doesn't make the shots, his mental edge can be negated. Look at the way unknown Todd Witsken knocked him out in the third round last year. And Connors wasn't the only big name vanquished quickly; McEnroe lost his opening match to Paul Annacone in another shocker.

There are just too many good players (128 in both the men's and women's draws) to ever relax at the Open, the richest tournament in the world. Only one member of the men's top 50 is not entered, and the women have all but two of their top 100 shotmakers present.

First-seeded is 18-year-old Steffi Graf, who has grabbed center stage away from Navratilova and Evert with an absolutely sensational season. She's lost just once all year, to Navratilova in the Wimbledon final, and recently forced the computer to rank her where everybody knows she's been for months - No. 1.

Graf, of course, will be under tremendous pressure here to live up to her press clippings. Last year she and Navratilova played a thrilling three-set semifinal, which included two tiebreakers. Martina was barely able to hold her off then, and could find it even more difficult this time, with the defending champion experiencing an off year by her own standards.

Navratilova should come in plenty hungry, though, as should Evert.

Chris's string of winning at least one Grand Slam title every year since 1973 is endangered. Hana Mandlikova won this year's Australian crown, Graf the French, and Navratilova Wimbledon.

Now it's the bottom of the ninth, and Evert senses that her days as one of the very top players may be ending. ``It's true, I may not get to be No. 1 again, with the emergence of Steffi, and that's something different, because I've always been No. 1 or No. 2. But I am conscious of winning a major tournament 14 straight years.''

Evert is third-seeded behind Graf and Navratilova, with Mandlikova, the '85 champion, fourth, and Pam Shriver fifth. Seeded after Lendl among the men are Australian winner Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander, Boris Becker, and surprise '86 finalist Miloslav Mecir. Wimbledon champion Pat Cash follows Connors at No. 7. -30-{et

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