Big Bill Tilden's shoulder was bothering him, and Don Budge was having dinner with President Roosevelt.

Little matter. Pro tennis's dinosaur division, the five-stop Advanta Tour, made its debut Thursday night at McNichols Sports Arena without a single visit by the paramedics. For a while there you needed No Doz--the six-set round-robin took almost six hours--but fire still burns in the bellies of John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander. None of them wandered off to the parking lot in mid-rally, and they all remembered their names.

"We're going to give the fans good tennis, and a good time," McEnroe said. "We have no intention of disappointing them."

Johnny Mac made good on his promise. At 35, this winner of 154 singles and doubles titles may have lost a step covering the baseline, but his most famous skills remained in peak form. Down 4-5 in a tiebreaker with Wilander, for instance, he volleyed one long, then executed a perfect racquet-toss into the net.

"Shit!" he explained.
McEnroe augmented his matchless finesse game with a brilliant forehand smash high into the arena lights and selected endearments. Clearly concerned about one linesperson's health, he inquired: "What is it? Are you blind?"

The crowd of 8,311 ate it up. Just as they ate up the 41-year-old Connors's trademark repartee with fans in the $50 seats, Borg's famous topspin forehand (it sailed long most of the night), and Wilander's patented court strategy. Of course, Mats is only 29--no wonder he beat all three of his tourmates one set each and took home $40,000 for his trouble. By current standards, peanuts.

"I'm playing because I love it," he said. "I never knew the prize in any tournament. I never cared. Now, playing against these guys, it feels like a bigger match than it really is."

Among the four of them, "these guys" have won 33 Grand Slam singles titles and almost $32 million in prize money. Of course, that was then and this is now. Before lying down for your afternoon nap, consider. It's been fourteen years since Borg won the last of his five consecutive Wimbledon titles: He retired in 1983, at age 27. Twelve years and one hairline have vanished since McEnroe won three U.S. Opens in a row. It's been twenty years since Connors won three of the four Grand Slam tournaments in a single season.

And that storied showdown at Wimbledon--Borg outlasting McEnroe 18-16 in the fifth set for the title? That was 1980.

In this trial balloon season, the Advanta sponsors hope tennis buffs remember such great moments--just as Senior PGA fans remember Arnie's Army or Lee Trevino's win in the 1968 U.S. Open. The four players (a fifth, Ivan Lendl, will join them in September) also may offer something today's doomsday stroking machines often do not--color and texture.

Linesman John Sternbach, the object of Johnny Mac's fury at least three times Thursday, put it well: "People are searching for personalities," he said. "They want to get into the skin of the players. It takes a special chemistry to make people feel they are vested in the game on the court. But I like this format. It's all singles play, and there's pride here. None of these guys wants to lose to his peers."

Added Borg: "This is more than nostalgia."
Maybe, but it is also less than, say, Pete Sampras versus Boris Becker. Like Crosby, Stills and Nash, or the Grateful Dead, the four Advanta retreads--two Swedish icemen and a pair of Yankee hotheads--still push memory buttons. But they're required to run farther than Jack Nicklaus. By the end of the night, altitude and stiffness took their toll.

"These guys suck," one skeptical fan opined. "My forehand's better." Of course, the fan had his name scrawled on his sneakers in black and green ink and probably would doze through social studies the next day. Only when McEnroe smacked his racquet into the green carpet did the boy betray a glimmer of recognition.

With caution, then, the tour will move on this year to widely spaced stops in Anaheim, Chicago, Charlotte and Key Biscayne, doling out $425,000 to the players and tarnished glory to the fans along the way. If people respond, the schedule will expand next year.

Meanwhile, Wilander may be getting more out of the experience than anyone. In 1982, at age 17, this Swedish phenom burst upon the scene with an upset win at the French Open. He earned a million dollars by the time he was 19 and four Grand Slam titles by 21. In 1988, he won the Australian, French and U.S. Opens and was named the ATP Player of the Year.

Can you say burnout?
Wilander's game went sour, he was replaced in the Swedish tennis pantheon by another young star, Stefan Edberg, and he was seized by self-doubt. The Advanta Tour could be his comeback vehicle, and the driver could be Bjorn Borg. He is, after all, the man who invented Swedish tennis in the Seventies, the inspiration for all who followed.

Prior to the one-setter in Denver, Wilander had played just one match against his hero--not counting three exhibitions last year.

"For me, it's privilege to step onto the court with him," Wilander said after beating Borg 6-4. "He's Mister Borg. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be standing here. He proved that a small country like Sweden can produce fine players, and all the so-called Swedish tennis wonders result from him. We owe him so much. So does the game."

Or, as John McEnroe was saying to his linguistics class Thursday night: "Get your head out of your ass and make the right call!"

According to the conspiracy theorists (who sit high up in the bleachers, dreaming into their beers), the rabbitball is back.

In 1987, these geniuses assert, the poor Haitian devils who were paid nine cents a week to wrap yarn around rubber and then stitch cowhide around yarn, wrapped and stitched a little tighter than usual--under orders from George Steinbrenner, Napoleon and the Trilateral Commission.

This resulted in 89-pound shortstops with glaucoma threatening Roger Maris's home-run record.

Now the conspirators have struck again--even though baseballs are currently manufactured in Costa Rica. The American League averaged 1.57 home runs per game in 1992; as of last week, they were averaging 2.55 home runs per game this season. In the Senior Circuit, 1.3 dingers-per in 1992 has ballooned into 2.02. Not only that, the Atlanta Braves hit back-to-back-to-back roundtrippers twice last week. Virtually unknown Mets second baseman Jeff Kent has eight homers in April. And at least two players--Cubs outfielder Tuffy Rhodes and Chisox veteran Tim Raines--already have whacked three big ones each in a single game.

Here at Mile High Stadium, the Colorado Rockies have hit 26 home runs in their first seventeen outings.

If that doesn't prove Wayne Newton poisoned Elvis, then what does?
Ball-derdash, we say.
In Costa Rica, quality control may not be what it should be. But the 1994 baseball is not flying into the next zip code because it's wound too tight or otherwise juiced-up. It's probably because guys like Frank "The Big Hurt" Thomas are built like armored personnel carriers (only a lot faster), people like Barry Bonds have the reflexes of angry cobras, and specimens like second-sacker Kent now are larger than the average third baseman standing on the shoulders of the average catcher were a generation ago.

There's also expansion.
National League scoring (including home runs) shot up dramatically last season, when the Rockies and Marlins joined the Show, because their pitching staffs were Triple A level at best. In both leagues, moreover, the quality of play (especially of pitching) is diluted by expansion, and higher run total is the result.

What's harder to do? Pitch a no-hitter or run it up on the Cubs at Wrigley Field?

In conclusion, Mr. District Attorney, the only "rabbit" in baseball is still Maranville. Even if Judge Crater and Amelia Earhart were in Dallas the day of the Kennedy assassination.


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