New faces at Italian Open nearly upstage tourney winner Lendl

This year's Italian Open men's tennis championships wound up with the familiar name of Ivan Lendl on top, but also showcased a number of new faces that promise to add interest to the coming Grand Slam events at Paris, Wimbledon, and New York. One of the most talked about newcomers was Guillermo P'erez-Roldan, a 19-year-old Argentine who gave the world's No. 1 player all he could handle in the final for almost five hours. Despite the pressure, and the big gap in experience and ranking, P'erez-Roldan did not crack until losing his serve at 4-4 in the last set of the 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 struggle.

P'erez-Roldan, though, was just one of many relative newcomers who gave the tournament a youthful look, and who upstaged many of the game's established names.

The Rome tournament, standing at the top of the second echelon after the Grand Slam events, and well placed on the calendar heading into the summer season, always attracts a strong field. This year, in addition to Lendl the competitors included Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, Anders Jarryd, Yannick Noah, and Andr'es G'omez. But among this illustrious group only Lendl survived the quarterfinals; many did not make it that far. Among those knocking out the big names were P'erez-Roldan (who shocked G'omez), Sweden's Kent Carlsson (Noah), and Haiti's Arnold Agenor (Wilander).

It remains to be seen who are the bona fide contenders for top rankings and who are just pretenders, but it should make for an interesting summer.

Another promising newcomer is Andre Agassi, who captivated the public both on and off the court throughout his week here even though he was beaten by Agenor in the quarters. Coming into Rome, the 18-year-old American was riding a 12-match winning streak that included a victory in the Tournament of Champions at Forest Hills, N.Y., the week before. With his long blond mane, denim tennis shorts, and flamboyant on-court demeanor, he was the player most sought after by both the press and the hordes of young fans who gathered around the stadium.

If the advent of the hard-hitting Agassi is for real, it is good news for tennis. For more than two years, the tennis world has been told how much it needs John McEnroe, but during that time the former No. 1 has been struggling to regain his old form and failing to rein in his bad-boy impulses on the court.

Now comes Agassi, whose court behavior is not only a sharp contrast to that of McEnroe but also to the demeanor of other moaners and groaners like Lendl, Edberg, and Italy's Paolo Cane. To be fair, Edberg is more of a frowner, but none of three generally show any reaction upon winning a point, save the occasional clenched fist in tight situations. Their predominant reaction is one of disgust. Lendl spent much of his time in Rome growling about the condition of the balls, arguing calls with umpires, and sparring verbally with the crowd.

Agassi is another story. Even if his sportsmanlike attitude is a concerted post-McEnroe effort directed at American audiences, it is nevertheless appreciated on this side of the Atlantic, too. The Romans, like the Forest Hills crowd, were won over when Agassi, instead of griping at lost points, clapped his racket to applaud opponents' winning shots. His magnetism seems to give him a home-court advantage regardless of where he is playing.

Even at the time of the finals on Sunday, two days after Agenor had sent him packing, Agassi was still the toast of Rome (although the flashy Noah ran a close second). Rumors were afloat that Agassi is being considered for a role in the next film by the producer of the Oscar-winning ``The Last Emperor.''

While Agassi diverted all the attention, P'erez-Roldan, Agenor, and Carlsson quietly went about their business of dispatching Top 10 players, some of whom are hardly ready for retirement. Agenor's victim, Wilander, for example, won the French Open seven years ago and seems to have been on the circuit forever - but is actually still only 24.

Carlsson, 20, is simply the latest in a long line of stoic, two-fisted backhanding Swedes who began with Bjorn Borg. After dismissing Noah in the quarterfinals, Carlsson ran into a rainstorm and an on-form Lendl.

But despite his eventual victory, Lendl did not look sharp much of the week. Carlsson, in fact, was the only opponent who did not force him to the limit (i.e., three sets in all matches up to the final, and five sets there).

Perhaps the balls were in poor shape; it has been very humid in Rome. Maybe the linesmen missed a few calls; they usually do. Or maybe the pasta arrabbiata did not agree with him. But Lendl was not the picture of concentration that typified his first years at the top of the rankings.

The number of unforced errors, thrown rackets, and seeming indifference in some matches (P'erez-Roldan caught him a few times Sunday listlessly standing flat-footed at the net) give rise to speculation that four years of being No. 1 are enough. Perhaps Wimbledon, where Lendl desperately wants to put his name among the sport's legends with his first All-England championship, will be the litmus test.

Then again, some of Lendl's complaints were not without merit. If crowd noise were a prerequisite for a tournament being deemed a Grand Slam event, this one would qualify hands down, rivaling the US Open for top honors. And like the National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadow, which lies under the flight path of LaGuardia Airport, the courts at Rome's Foro Italico had their air traffic Sunday as well. Lendl spent much of the third set paying more attention to a Cessna buzzing the stadium than he did to P'erez-Roldan.

In a post-match interview, though, the champion was all smiles. A commentator reminded Lendl that he had been absent from the Rome event for five years, to which he replied with a grin, ``Now I remember why.''

If the organizers in Rome truly expect their tournament to gain prestige and to rank closer to the Grand Slam events, a few changes are in order. Lesson No. 1 might come from the tradition-bound team of ball boys at Wimbledon, who operate with almost military precision. A number of times during the week here a server waiting for a second ball to stuff in his pocket was pummeled with three at once.

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