Tennis Woes Felt At French Open
PARIS (AP) _ Despite near-capacity crowds and a state-of-the-art, multimillion dollar new court, this year’s French Open has been peppered with talk about the slump in tennis worldwide.
Many top players are on the defensive, stung by criticism that they are responsible for what many see as an unprecedented crisis in their sport.
The early exits of Martina Navratilova and Andre Agassi were seen as a calamity for the tournament, desperately in need of colorful, crowd-pleasing performers to boost French TV ratings, which have plummeted by 50 percent, compared with 1989.
Yet many stars deny that bland personalities, pampered lifestyles or on- court behavior have anything to do with the problem. Some even deny there is a problem.
Former French Open champion Michael Chang said the often-asked question ″Is Tennis Dying?″ - the title of a recent Sports Illustrated cover story - didn’t interest him so he left the magazine on the newsstand.
For Andrei Medvedev of Ukraine, the media was the culprit for writing nonsense about the players, distorting their words and raising unrealistic expectations.
″The people are blaming us for not showing character, but unfortunately, it is not as easy as it looks,″ he said.
″The competition is so high, the athletes are so strong at the moment and everyone serves more than 112 mph. Just try once to return that serve and you will understand why we are not smiling.″
″For us it is a job. For the fans it is a show. We have to do our job right so the people enjoy the show. It is actually pretty hard to put those things together.″
Jim Courier suggested a hair-raising way to drum up interest in tennis.
″Maybe we should have a good old brawl, guys streaming out of the locker room onto the court and picking sides and fighting Europe versus America or the rest of the world versus Europe?″ he said.
However, the No. 1 seed, Pete Sampras, admitted the sport was in trouble.
″I think it is just going through a cycle right now. Maybe what the NBA went through 10 years ago,″ he said Friday after his fourth-round victory over Paul Haarhuis.
″I think tennis will, hopefully, just get more popular as more people get to know Courier and myself and the rest of the guys, so I don’t think it’s dying.″
Many say Sampras doesn’t exude the kind of charisma that a highly visible champion must have, on and off the court, to capture young imaginations enthralled by Michael Jordan.
After Sampras beat Courier at Wimbledon last year, the tabloids headlined ″Bored On the Fourth of July,″ and referred to him as ″Samprazzzzzzz″
″I have never been called a character,″ he said. ″I think my responsibility is to go out and give 100 percent effort and play with some class.″
But class may not be enough to revive interest in tennis, which rose to unprecedented popularity with fist-pumping, never-say-die showmen like Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe.
Courier appealed for understanding.
″We’re doing the best we can, God bless us,″ he said.
In France, no one has stepped into the shoes of flamboyant 1983 French Open winner Yannick Noah. Henri Leconte, the brilliant but erratic left-hander, has no heirs either.
Cedric Pioline, who reached the finals of last year’s U.S. Open, lost popularity by refusing to play Davis Cup because he couldn’t bring along his private coach and entourage.
The game also is hurting financially. In a country where kids once banged forehands in parking lots wearing Noah-style rasta locks, the sale of tennis equipment has dropped three years in a row. Hundreds of new public courts are often empty, and the private clubs that once had long waiting lists are begging for new members and cutting staff.
Basketball and mountain biking are the new ″fun″ sports for French teen- agers. Parents are buying golf clubs and hiking boots.
″Today tennis doesn’t grab the imagination the way it did. People now want a fun sport, where they can make noise and participate in some way,″ said Christian Ladreyt, an executive with Penn, the tennis-ball company.
″Tennis has to be a show, with music and excitement to heat up the court. The game was democratized in the 1970s and ’80s, and now we have to follow through.″
The numbers tell a sad story. About 6.4 million viewers tuned in the Michael Chang-Stefan Edberg final in 1989. Only half that number watched last year’s final between Courier and Sergi Bruguera of Spain. Consequently, French networks reduced the hours of live action broadcast this year.
The national tennis federation also noted a 6 percent decline in members. At the Union Sportive du Pecq, a municipal club in a wealthy Paris suburb, membership dropped so sharply that several teaching pros were laid off.
The federation is working hard to rekindle interest. For the first time at Roland Garros, kids can play free tennis video games in booths under the stadium and test the speed of their serves with computers.
Ladreyt said he was optimistic tennis would get over the blues.
″The infrastructure is there, so things could move quickly,″ he said. ″We’re a big family now, and together we’re fighting for our survival.″
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