PLAYING BALL AT DU

"Sure," he says. "My players would like that. They want to throw darts at it."

The U.S. Open Tennis Tournament gets under way Monday, but don't look for order on the court.

The professional game is losing its old aristocratic luster, which ain't such a bad thing. But it's also losing its finesse, TV ratings and corporate sponsors, which hurts. Meanwhile, half a dozen of the world's biggest tennis stars will be conspicuously absent from this year's Open. On all fronts, insiders say, the game now faces its gravest crisis in decades.

Consider. Crowd-pleasers Jimmy Connors, the never-say-die winner of five U.S. Opens, and Martina Navratilova, who's won four, have grown old at last and have gracefully withdrawn. Teenager Jennifer Capriati, once the bright hope of U.S. women's tennis, is No. 1 only on the game's long burnout list. The game's best female player, Monica Seles, was stabbed in the back by a lunatic nearly two years ago and remains MIA from the circuit.

Brash John McEnroe has retired to the broadcast booth, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker are declining, and last week golden boy Jim Courier got knocked out of another minor event amid a deepening failure of confidence. The top-ranked player in the world just two years ago, he has not won a tournament in 1994 and could be another no-show in New York.

"I don't know if it will take one day, one month or one year," Courier said. But he won't be back until he regains the heart that got him to the top.

There's more. To counteract the snooty image that still clings to tennis, ATP Tour organizers recently relaxed the rules governing fan movement in the stands, and they're experimenting with piped-in rock and roll during the changeovers. A nice loosening-up mechanism? Not to hear France's Guy Forget or grunge icon Andre Agassi tell it. Both players brayed long and loud about the distractions--and they were right.

Bad as they are, these problems are easy putaways compared to the game's stylistic woes. As any skinny nine-year-old wielding a $300 Wilson Hammer can tell you, today's high-tech, oversize tennis racquets have evolved into assault weapons. That has transformed young players, especially the men, into hard-bashing automatons with 120-mile-an-hour serves and scorching groundstrokes. The result? Shorter points and less beauty. The well-executed drop shot and the cunningly angled volley are endangered species; the brutal shootout is in.

Believe it or not, the tennis establishment is now considering higher nets, longer courts and a radical first-serve-only rule to bring back the fans and the classic strategies. Good luck.

In the meantime, the U.S. Open will produce the same two singles winners, Steffi Graf and Pete Sampras, that every major hard-court tournament produces these days.

Game, set, match. Kindly excuse us while we tune in the tractor pull.

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