A sport can shine only when its stars come out

We are a star-infatuated society when it comes to sports.

A big star is good, but a bigger star is better. And there can never be a star athlete who is too big.

Watch how fans react to sports celebrities - especially a chance encounter on the street or in a restaurant. Bright, thoughtful, logical people routinely become babbling nincompoops, quivering like jello.

Nowhere is it more clear how important stars are than in the major individual sports - golf, tennis, and boxing. Each understands its past success was tied to its stars and its future will be, too.

And each has star concerns.

In the potentially strongest position vis-a-vis stars is women's tennis. This is a sport that bounced along in obscurity for eons. Billie Jean King emerged in the early '60s and generated snippets of attention.

But it wasn't until 1974 when two women - Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova - won their first major championships that the sport took off. Between 1975 and 1980, one or the other of them was ranked No. 1. Their battles were legendary, their personalities riveting, their skills wondrous.

Those blazing days of yesteryear might repeat. It would be ideal if the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, end up battling for titles for years to come: two girls from the slums, taught by their often abrasive father, who admittedly knew little about tennis. They're rapidly moving up in the rankings. It's a tale for the ages.

And remaining very much in the picture is Martina Hingis from Switzerland, still clinging uncertainly to the No. 1 ranking. This could be very fun.

Conversely, men's tennis is in the pits. Why? It's starless.

In the '60s, Australians including Roy Emerson, John Newcombe, Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, and Fred Stolle dazzled. Then soon came the Big Three stars - Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, and Bjorn Borg.

But since then, no stars have appeared even approaching these dimensions. The two best Americans these days, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, fail to ignite our passions. Yet, the bigger problem is it's a sport peopled by players we've never heard of. No. 1 is Marat Safin. No. 2 is Gustavo Kuerten. Then there is Thomas Enqvist and Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

Women's golf is in similar straits. No. 1 is Karrie Webb, followed by Annika Sorenstam.

The sport's biggest luminaries are decades past: Kathy Whitworth, Mickey Wright, Patty Berg, and Betsy Rawls. The only recent big name is Nancy Lopez, but the sun has set on her. And nobody seems to be dawning.

On the other hand, men's golf has a unique, albeit imperfect, star. Tiger Woods obviously is among the top celebrities in the world. Throw in politicians and Hollywood, and Woods is still at the top.

But the problem is that he is the whole sport. If Woods doesn't play, a tournament is doomed. Among a bevy of fine golfers are Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke, Steve Flesch, Michael Campbell, Duffy Waldorf, and Mike Weir. Ever heard of them?

If Woods should decide to forsake golf and devote himself to, say, pen-and-ink sketching, golf is in a world of hurt. A sport that depends on one person is in a precarious situation.

As Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus needed each other in order to define their greatness, Woods needs a competitor. There isn't one. At the moment, sometimes worthy challengers like Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, and David Duval seem dispirited by the enormity of the task.

Boxing puts it all in bold relief. Muhammad Ali is in most minds the athlete of the century or more. Never has there been a bigger star, including Michael Jordan. It is all the more amazing because of the public's general and justifiable suspicion of the sport's integrity and its skullduggery.

But there has been no appropriate star since, which is part of the reason boxing is on the national back burner.

And so we wait. That's the thing about stars. They emerge unbidden. They come; they always do. But it can be an interminable wait, as sky watchers know, for a shooting star. And proper competitors.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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