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Lori McNeil Found Fame in N.Y. : Upset of Evert in U.S. Open Made People Take Notice

December 09, 1987|LISA DILLMAN | Special to The Times

Lori McNeil first shocked the tennis world--and Chris Evert--by reaching the U.S. Open semifinals in September. Then, the public, eager to find out more about the emerging star in the women's game, was shocked on another account.

They were surprised to discover that neither McNeil nor her doubles partner Zina Garrison had endorsements of any sort--rackets, shoes or clothing. Nothing.

The outcry was loud, to be sure, and it almost threatened to overshadow McNeil's accomplishments in Flushing Meadow, N.Y.

But, it solved the problem.

McNeil signed with a powerful player management group (IMG), and promptly began signing contracts. She recently reached a three-year deal with Reebok and is in the process of working on a racket deal.

"It (the Open) hasn't really changed my life," said McNeil, who lost, 6-2, 6-1, to Martina Navratilova in an exhibition at the Forum Tuesday night.

"Well . . . other than people noticing me more."

However, her quarterfinal victory over Evert and three-set loss to No. 1-ranked Steffi Graf in the Open semifinals, have brought more offers to appear in lucrative exhibitions. McNeil and partner Robert Seguso won a mixed doubles event at Indian Wells over the weekend, and she also appeared at a special women's event in Orange County during the fall.

And, McNeil is wearing Reebok clothing on the court, a change from when she used to play in basic, patch-free garb. But, even when McNeil wasn't getting the offers she wanted from companies, it didn't overly irritate her. They were simply icing on the cake, she said.

"It was too big an issue (at the Open)," McNeil said. "We were getting offers, but they just weren't the ones we wanted."

This year brought forth a great deal of change in McNeil's life, and it already seems as if 1988 could shape up the same way. She'll be playing doubles with Betsy Nagelsen more often than with her longtime partner, Garrison. And McNeil is said to be working exclusively with John Wilkerson, instead of both Wilkerson and Willis Thomas.

Although McNeil, daughter of former San Diego Chargers defensive back Charlie McNeil, hasn't exactly taken off after her Open performance--most recently losing to Helena Sukova in the first round at the Virginia Slims Championships--she still is making the same steady improvement.

"It (the Open) just gives you more incentive," McNeil said. "It makes you work harder once you've had a taste of it."

Navratilova, for one, wasn't surprised by anything McNeil did at the National Tennis Center.

"No, not at all," she said. "I saw her four years ago at the Open when I was practicing on the Stadium Court, and I thought, 'This girl is going to be good.' I still remember that."

In the featured match, No. 5-ranked Jimmy Connors defeated Tim Mayotte, 7-6, 7-5, before an announced crowd of 5,107.

Connors, who had filled in for Ivan Lendl in the last exhibition at the Forum less than a month ago, was the ailing one this time. Last week, Connors, 35, was suffering from a cold at the Masters in New York and had to withdraw during his match with Lendl.

Against the No. 10-ranked Mayotte, however, Connors was just sharp enough, as he took the first-set tiebreaker, 7-4. Then, he closed out the match in the second set with a service winner.

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