Quit Making Such a Racquet

Okay, dyed-in-the-wool sports fans. Here's one for you. Bohdan Ulihrach. Tell us

about Bohdan Ulihrach. Never heard of him? Fine. How about Filip DeWulf? Put together, if you will, a couple of cogent facts concerning his life and career. No? All right, then. Jan Siemerink. That's S-I-E-M...Still coming up empty? Take a shot at, let's see here, Felix Mantilla. No, we don't mean the old Milwaukee Braves infielder. This is the Felix Mantilla who, a couple of weeks back, took out Alberto Berasategui.

Don't sweat it. A lot of people who are supposed to know the difference between a double fault and a double Scotch have never heard of these guys, either--despite the fact that every last one of them now outranks a guy named Andre Agassi in the professional tennis standings. No surprise: Most of them hit the ball even harder than he does.

Andre Agassi. Now, there's a personality everyone knows. Baggy black shorts hanging down to his ankles. Big gold earring. Shaved head. The best court sense and quickest ground strokes in the game. A guy who can hit scorching winners from virtually anywhere on the court. Number one in the rankings, $13 million in prize money. Punked-out, cocky, teen idol Andre Agassi--the co-heavyweight champion of tennis, along with his old pal and adversary, Pete Sampras. Their rivalry is bound to revive a game in bad need of an energy transfusion.

That, at least, was the conventional wisdom in 1995. Today Andre Agassi is ranked No. 75 in the world (his wife's new TV show is No. 4), and he hasn't survived the first round of his last four tournaments. Agassi and bride Brooke Shields have just plunked down two million bucks for a new house in Las Vegas, but since 1996, his match record in big events is a dismal 8-13, and he hasn't reached a final in a year and a half. He's even talking about retirement.

After getting blown off the court last Tuesday in the ATP Championships in Mason, Ohio--by someone else whose name no one can remember--the guy who was once heralded as the savior of tennis had this to say: "It sucks. I'm just not picking up the ball well. I feel like a completely different player."

Whoever he is, Agassi will take another shot at comeback on September 25, when the U.S. Open gets under way on the hard courts in Flushing, New York. Agassi won this Grand Slam event in 1994, and he was a finalist in 1990 and 1995--losing both times to Sampras. But that success--and that budding rivalry--must seem like a long, long time ago, a different world. Today Agassi's game is as tired as men's tennis itself, and a star has turned into a symptom.

There's more tennis on television than ever before, but audience ratings are down. With the retirement of Martina Navratilova and Stefan Edberg (Boris Becker will soon follow suit), there are fewer big names but even more "big games," and the public doesn't like it.

Who can blame them? Is there anything duller in all of sport than watching huge Goran Ivanisevic or powerful Becker smash twenty-five or thirty 135-mile-an-hour aces past some poor devil standing on the other end of the court? Is there anything less interesting than the phenom of the week, equipped with his brand-new rocket launcher, hitting missile forehands up the line, point after point after point? Armed with extra-long racquets made of kevlar or zylon or high modulus graphite, today's male touring pros are not so much tennis players as assassins. Except on clay courts, the finesse and strategy that once made tennis one of the most beautiful sports to watch--even on television--has vanished from the men's game. Sheer firepower, that's the whole ballgame now.

Pete Sampras? He's the world's best player, but is he enjoyable to watch? I don't think so. With his huge serve, laser-beam ground strokes and screaming putaway volleys, Pete's mighty impressive, to be sure. But every time I see this heavily armed automaton do his thing, I can't help thinking you might as well set up a machine gun out there and pull the trigger. It's not Sampras's fault, but men's tennis has sold its soul to the Wilson Sledgehammer and the Prince Thunderbolt.

Who cares if Andre Agassi makes a comeback? Tennis has turned into impersonal, high-tech warfare. Tom Clancy could write an action novel about it--with Bohdan Ulihrach as the intrepid hero.

The slower women's game still looks like tennis--as does the men's when on clay--and from this the game's potentates should finally get a clue. Although wood-racquet retro tournaments have become the vogue among some club players on the East Coast (more game, more feel), touring pros aren't about to give up their space-age weapons for Rod Laver's old woody, and they shouldn't have to. Instead, the game's rulemakers should probably be experimenting with softer court surfaces and slower tennis balls--to put a little artistry back into tennis.

What would you rather watch? Mark Philippoussis blistering a 140-mile-an-hour ace past his defenseless opponent on every other point, or John McEnroe working his way up to the net on three or four varied strokes, then slicing a perfectly placed volley into the corner for a winner? I know, I know. This is the age of bombastic special effects. But isn't there still a place for drama?

Don't bother asking Andre Agassi about that next week in New York. Odds are he'll be too busy tending to his powder burns, inflicted by some new hotshot like Filip DeWulf.

Between John Elway's tendon and Joe Sakic's tenure, Denver sports fans have been giving the worry beads a real workout this week.

Happily, No. 7 seems to have survived (albeit with a torn bicep) an epidemic of quarterback injuries in the NFL preseason. His closely guarded Sunday workout was a success--as we might have expected from an indestructible icon--and he vows to strap it on for the season opener. You can count on it.

Jacksonville's young star Mark Brunell--we remember him from last January, don't we?--wasn't so lucky. He is hobbling around on a knee that looks like scrambled eggs after a couple of gigantic New York Giants fell atop him; he could be out for the season.

Carolina's Kerry Collins is still wondering what hit him in Saturday night's meaningless exercise against the Broncos (it was veteran linebacker Bill Romanowski), and he's got the broken jaw to prove it. It will be five to six weeks before Collins can eat solid food again, much less play football. Meanwhile, the Panthers are barking his signals for him--claiming Romanowski's fair and square hit was a cheap shot. Absolutely not.

As for the aforementioned Mr. Sakic, he would love it in New York's garment district. The first time those beer-sodden Rangers fans packed inside Madison Square Garden let him have both barrels of venom for whiffing the slapshot or blowing the pass, he would wonder whether being paid twice what the entire Pittsburgh Pirates roster is earning this year is really worth it.

Compared to the bent-nosed, squash-eared mutants who hold Rangers season tickets, the bloodthirstiest McNichols Arena crowd is like a class of pre-schoolers at naptime. If Sakic didn't live up to every penny of that $21 million contract--and he didn't exactly melt the ice around here last season--they'd tear him apart out on Seventh Avenue.

Why should Charlie "Air Force One" Lyons and his buddies at Ascent Entertainment Group come up with the jack to keep Joe? They've already brought a Stanley Cup to a town that didn't know a puck from a Mighty Duck the year it all happened, and all those top draft choices the Avs will get from the Rangers will do the club plenty of good in a year or two. Besides, Sakic's departure just might transform underachiever Peter Forsberg into the all-planet center he was supposed to be.

Can local fans bear to wait two or three seasons for the Avs' next crack at the Cup? Sure. Why not. The fans have been waiting for Elway and Company to win the Super Bowl for fourteen years, and they've been waiting two decades for Ascent Entertainment's other valued property--the Denver Nuggets--to face facts and join the Western Athletic Conference.

Go ahead, Charlie. Let the Rangers hijack your highest-flying player. His teammates would get over it, and so would we.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo