Play Matches Celebratory Mood at US Open

New complex stars along with the top seeds and fresh faces in tournament's first week

The star during the early going of this year's United States Open tennis tournament neither fired service aces, dinked drop shots, nor even swung a racket. No, stealing the limelight was the place where two weeks of laser shotmaking takes place - the new, improved, and expanded National Tennis Center.

What 19 years ago started as a 21-acre complex thrown up in Flushing Meadows near the end of a Queens-bound New York subway now is more than twice as big. A plane approaching nearby LaGuardia Airport could probably make an emergency landing on the vast plazas included in the new layout, which was a hit with most everyone, players and fans alike, although some fans were a little skeptical of their high-altitude seats in wonderfully named Arthur Ashe Stadium.

But, hey, this is New York, and if any city should have a tennis skyline, NYC should. And at least for this year, the center actually owns twin towers in side-by-side Ashe Stadium and Louis Armstrong Stadium, the high-rising old show court next door.

As for the tournament's tennis-playing towers, top-seeded Pete Sampras and Martina Hingis stood tall through the first week. At press time, they were still on board the Championship Express, heading for their third Grand Slam titles of the year. Each won the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and neither has encountered much resistance here. Sampras waltzed by two qualifiers to open his title defense. Hingis, meanwhile, began her quest for a first US title by beating pregnant opponent Tami Jones, then joked about facing two players across the net.

Barring a major upset, Sampras should have no trouble reaching Sunday's men's final, where in a best-case scenario his opponent would either be second-seeded Michael Chang or unseeded Andre Agassi, who has come to life at the end of an otherwise miserable year littered with first-round losses.

Agassi won the Open in 1994 and still was at the height of his game when Sampras beat him in the 1995 final. "It was one of the few times I really felt the electricity from the crowd and the media," Sampras recalls. "One thing tennis needs right now is a rivalry. ... Andre and I had it for a little bit a couple of years ago and that really helped out the game."

One player viewed as a potential challenger to Sampras's domination of men's tennis is Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who withdrew from last year's US Open to protest his lower-than-anticipated seeding. This year he was seeded No. 3 seed, but his game went flat and unseeded Australian Mark Woodforde eliminated him in straight sets in the second round. Woodforde himself fell to a rejuvenated Agassi on Sunday.

If misery loves company, Kafelnikov had it. By Sunday evening, other highly seeded players joining him on the sidelines included Goran Ivanisevic, Thomas Muster, Alex Corretja, Carlos Moya, and Gustavo Kuerten, who along with Iva Majoli was a surprise champion at this year's French Open.

Majoli's efforts to prove she's no one-tournament wonder fell well short here, as she lost to tenacious Sandrine Testud of France in the second round. Only Majoli and American Lindsay Davenport have managed to derail Hingis this year. Although the 1996 Olympic champion, Davenport has yet to make her mark in Grand Slam tournaments. To do so this time will probably require beating Hingis again if they advance to a semifinal matchup.

The most likely survivor in the other women's bracket is second-seeded Monica Seles, who seems to have relit her tennis fires in the past month or so with back-to-back tournament victories in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and the Canadian Open. "Monica is playing a lot better than at Wimbledon [where she lost in the third round]," says Chris Evert. "She's going after the ball." She did just that on Sunday, coming back from a first-set drubbing to beat Mary Pierce in a hard-fought match.

If Seles doesn't go all the way, though, perhaps teenager Venus Williams will. As an African-American who grew up playing on public courts in Los Angeles, Williams would seem a poetic choice in a year in which the late Arthur Ashe is being saluted as a champion of tennis for all. She has shone in the first four rounds.

Whether or not she puts her stamp on the Open, the tournament has already enjoyed at least one defining moment - on Day 1, as 37 past champions paraded onto center court. Never have so many of the game's greats - from Don Budge and Maria Bueno to Stefan Edberg and temporarily out-of-action Steffi Graf - been assembled at one time. The introduction of each was dignified and moving in its simplicity - and a great tribute to Ashe.

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