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Scott Ostler

Brass Bands, Sea Gulls and Old Age

June 23, 1987|Scott Ostler

WIMBLEDON, England — Old age is a terrible thing. It sneaks up on you while you're least expecting it.

It crept up on both Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert last week in a nice little English town named Eastbourne. The news was carried by a brass band and a sea gull.

In a Wimbledon warmup tournament in Eastbourne, an event most players take very seriously, Evert lost to a Czech kid named Helena Sukova. Evert didn't exactly offer excuses, but she did admit that she had been distracted by a brass band that marched past the stadium.

Sukova also beat Navratilova. At one point, Martina stopped play, glared up at a gull wheeling overhead and shouted, "Why don't you shut up?"

In their primes, would Martina and Chris have been distracted by brass bands and sea gulls? In their primes, these two, their concentration focused like lasers against hapless opponents, would have been oblivious to a buffalo stampede.

But old people are more easily distracted, and Martina, at 30, and Chris, at 32, are facing tennis old age. So are Jimmy Connors, 34, and Wimbledon no-show John McEnroe, 28, and maybe even Ivan Lendl, 27.

That's why this Wimbledon could prove to be the end of an era.

The beginning of the end didn't begin Monday, though. It was drizzly and quiet at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club. It was so drizzly that the courts were never uncovered, and so quiet you could hear arteries harden.

Meanwhile, the baby boomers , hard-hitting tennis kids so young you figure their mums packed them off to England with name tags sewn in their underwear, quietly prepared for the takeover.

That takeover actually began two years ago, of course, when Boris Becker won this tournament at 17. Then he won it again at 18. Still a teen-ager, he is the top-seeded player.

The problem in the men's draw isn't Boris' youth, but second-seeded Lendl's advancing age. Consider that Bjorn Borg flamed out at 25 and John McEnroe at 26, after their Wimbledon glories.

Lendl is still winless at Wimbledon, and maybe it's too late, unless he comes up with a knuckleball.

On the women's side, Martina and Chris are showing signs of wear and tear, not to mention frazzled nerves and nerve.

Navratilova, going for her fifth straight Wimbledon title, is running at a notch above full panic. She is trying out new coaches and rackets and advisers and probably breakfast cereals.

Once unbeatable, Martina is winless in her last six tournaments. Her supreme confidence is shaken, and she's on edge. I would advise all low-flying sea gulls to steer clear of her courts.

Waiting to take over are such teen queens as Steffi Graf, who turned 18 Sunday; Gabriela Sabatini, 17, and the aforementioned Sukova, who is still a kid at 22.

Sabatini and Graf play doubles together, and probably Barbie dolls, too.

Sukova, a 6-foot 2-inch power hitter who isn't expected to win here (she's seeded fifth), has already influenced the mood of the tournament. Her win at Eastbourne fueled the rumors that Chris is over the hill and that Martina is beatable on English grass.

Martina has only herself to blame for upstarts like Sukova.

"She lifted the way you prepare for matches, for the tour," Sukova said. "She showed it (weight training and conditioning) works, and everyone started to do more and more. I started to do more.

"The game is improving so much there is no gap anymore (between the Evert-Navratilova entry and the rest of the field). The play caught up with (Martina)."

This fitness business has become a sickness on the tennis tour, spreading like a plague. Once, players compared forehands and volleys. Now they compare pulse rates and track coaches.

That's another reason the kids are taking over. In the old days--five years ago--you could overcome some of the side effects of old age by training harder, because the kid players were all out drinking beer and eating pizza. Now they train like Green Berets.

It's not fair. Lendl, after losing to Becker in the final here last year, went on a weight-lifting binge, adding slabs--OK, noticeable fibers--of muscle to his upper body.

Ah, but Becker hit the gym, too. He hired himself the coach who trains decathlon superstar Daley Thompson. Boris, already a bull, is stronger. And leaner. He has lost five pounds of baby fat since January. You could practice volleys off his stomach.

It turns out that even Graf, whom people tend to look upon as a natural wonder, is a fitness freak. A German doctor was recently quoted as favorably comparing Steffi's overall conditioning to that of a world-class track runner.

These kids are serious, folks. How serious? Becker gave in when adviser Ion Tiriac banished Becker's steady girlfriend from the United Kingdom for the Wimbledon fortnight so that all Boris' energy and attention could be focused on tennis.

Lendl, as serious as he claims to be about his tennis, did not order his live-in girlfriend home. Ivan insists he knows when to send her out shopping so he can get his rest. We'll see.

While Evert is doing the town with her new boyfriend, ski instructor Andy Mill, Graf is bedding down with her stuffed animals.

The old folks are in trouble. These kids are serious. And they're young.

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