With champs out, it's wide Open

This is the year the lights went out in New York. Now it looks as if that same disorienting, surreal atmosphere may extend to the world's most-watched tennis tournament, the US Open, which will light up Flushing Meadows in Queens this Monday.

Both the men's and women's defending champions will be AWOL - Serena Williams through injury, Pete Sampras through apparent retirement.

Last year's finals, an all-American extravaganza played on the emotional eve of the first anniversary of 9/11, reversed at least for a year, a ratings slide for the Open since the sport's heyday in the 1980s. TV sets lit up across America as Serena defeated her older sister Venus to continue their dual domination of women's tennis. And Sampras somehow steadied his wobbling game, downing Andre Agassi for his fifth Open title.

With the key absences, however, this year is a "wide-open Open," says veteran CBS producer Bob Mansbach, who'll be in charge of broadcasting the late-round action, including the finals two weekends hence. Both winners could easily be players who have never held a Grand Slam trophy overhead before.

The key may be who's most ready for prime time in the Big Apple.

"You need to have that fiery, positive attitude in New York more than any other place," says Patrick McEnroe, a New Yorker who is the US Davis Cup captain and a TV tennis analyst. "There are so many distractions, noise, all the things that are part of New York. You have to be able to thrive in those conditions. You have to enjoy that. You can't get rattled by it."

The player many experts say will grab that spotlight is Andy Roddick. Under new coach Brad Gilbert, he's gone 20-1 in matches this summer. With a hammer of a forehand, feet that can run down rabbits, and a serve that has tied the fastest ever recorded (149 miles per hour), he has all the tools. And with his love of sky diving, a glamorous girlfriend (singer and actress Mandy Moore), and his 21st birthday coming up midway through the tournament, he's got enough story lines to satisfy the hungry media.

In fact, McEnroe says, a Roddick win could mean more than just his first major title: It could reignite interest in the sport.

"Tennis needs rivalry, and it needs superstars," he says, to return to the level of the '80s when his brother, John McEnroe, and Jimmy Connors dominated the sport. "When Roddick wins a Grand Slam [tournament], that's going to be a big boost to the game."

Still, Roddick will face big challenges from the Open's start: His first-round match-up is against Tim Henman - the one player who's beaten him this summer.

Also standing in Roddick's way is Agassi, a tennis senior citizen at 33, who's the No. 1 seed despite lying low this summer to rest up for what could be his last run at a major championship. He cites last year's Sampras Surprise as his inspiration.

But even more formidable may be Roger Federer, the young Swiss player who captured the Wimbledon title earlier this summer. "This guy is a genius on the court," McEnroe says. "To watch him play is like watching Matisse or something. He's unbelievable when he's playing well."

Between Roddick and Federer (and Australian Leyton Hewitt, who's play has fallen off recently), the next generation of men's superstars may be about to emerge at the Open. But things are cloudier with the women, where the field seems to be particularly pixilated. The past four US Open titles have belonged to either Serena or Venus Williams. Big sis is expected to play this year, but she also has a lingering injury that makes it hard to gauge just how she'll play. If Venus can fight to the finals, that will be a big story line, producer Mansbach says.

Along with Venus, America's hopes will ride with fan-favorite Jennifer Capriati, who's disappeared into the shadow of the WIlliams sisters but is still a dangerous player. Otherwise, two up-and-coming young Belgians - Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne - may end up bashing each other from the baseline in the prime-time finals Sept. 6. Clijsters moved up to No. 1 in the world rankings this summer during Serena's absence, but she's never won a Grand Slam. "The Williamses and the Belgians have elevated themselves above everyone else," McEnroe says. "The Belgians are nipping at their heels."

He calls Clijsters "fun to watch, athletic, and a great personality. I think it'd be great for women's tennis if she won it." Yet it remains to be seen how she'll handle the burden of being No. 1.

Henin-Hardenne, meanwhile, has shown the mental toughness, but her only major title has been on the slow red clay of Paris, a world apart from life in the fast lane of the Open's hard courts.

If the Belgians waffle, look for long shots among a passel of Russians - seven among the top 32 seeds, none of whom are named Anna Kournikova. "They're hungry," McEnroe says. By comparison, only six Americans are among the top 32 women.

The US men fare even worse, with only four seeded among the top 32. Twenty or 25 years ago, perhaps half the draw would be Americans.

"That's not going to happen anymore," McEnroe says. Tennis has become hugely popular in the rest of the world, often ranking as the second- or third-biggest sport in many countries. In the US, it's not in the top seven or eight.

But McEnroe sees help on the way. "In four to five years, we're going to have another crop of kids that are going to be awesome, particularly on the men's side," he says. "We've got some very talented 13-to-15-year-olds."

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