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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

If Ranked Player Falls in Games, Does He Make a Sound?

Tennis: Agassi says he's glad to be here, but changes may be needed in Olympic format to draw a better field.

July 26, 1996|MIKE HISERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Compare the Olympic seedings with the world rankings and it quickly becomes apparent that the men's tennis competition this week isn't the racket it could be.

Sure, Andre Agassi, sixth in the Assn. of Tennis Professionals' ratings, is an exception. But isn't he always?

Agassi, seeded first, won again Thursday, besting Karol Kucera of Slovakia, 6-4, 6-4, in a second-round match. On the women's side, Monica Seles also won for the second time, defeating Patricia Hy-Boulais of Canada, 6-3, 6- 2.

But back to the topic of the day. Where are the best guys?

Nicked up or napping, according to their various representatives.

The top five men's players, including Americans Pete Sampras and Michael Chang, are either injured or resting for the U.S. Open late next month.

Agassi, seventh-ranked Goran Ivanisevic of Croatia and 10th-ranked Thomas Enqvist of Sweden were the only top-10 men in the field.

Enqvist has won twice, but barely. Ivanisevic showed up, but his game didn't. He was eliminated in a first-round match Wednesday by Marcos Ondruska of South Africa. And the really funny thing was, he didn't seem too broken up about it.

No prize money at stake, no tour points lost.

Tom Gullikson, who coaches the U.S. men, believes many top players have good reason to lack motivation. He says the Games may need an Olympic-size overhaul.

"The schedule is already too crowded," Gullikson said. "The players can only be stretched so far and in so many directions before they bend and break.

"The guys have played a lot of tennis. There were build-up events before the French Open and Wimbledon, which are always intense. They need a rest. But then there is this event called the Olympics."

An event at least one top player says he wouldn't miss.

"I can't get into the heads of athletes who chose not to be here," Agassi said. "It's one thing like Pete to be injured. But I can't comprehend the feeling of being inconvenienced by the Olympics."

Agassi said winning a gold medal would mean more to him than winning a Grand Slam event.

Of course, he can afford to say that because he has won three of them, a fact he acknowledged.

"We do have a very tough summer schedule," Agassi said. "If you do have a desire to win the U.S. Open, then the best preparation is to not be here.

"It all boils down to where your priorities are and the importance you put on tournaments we play in year after year.

"To me, there is no feeling like winning a medal for your country. I'll tell you what it feels like when I accomplish it. But I know right now the desire to have it is as great, possibly greater [than winning a Grand Slam event]."

Gullikson would like to see the tour's schedule adjusted in Olympic years, plus a format change that would shift the focus away from individual competition to something team-oriented.

It might go like this: Teams are matched in best-of-three series--two singles and one doubles.

"A lot of the American players have expressed to me that a team format might be a little bit better, rather than playing against each other," Gullikson said. "Right now, it's organized like any other tournament."

Agassi said he would encourage such a change.

"As it is, the gold medal is for one person," he said. "It would be nice to make it so a team could accomplish it together."

As for the women's competition, the injured Steffi Graf is the only big name not playing in the Games.

"The men's and women's tours are different in a lot of ways," Seles said. "Men can get guarantees; women can't. Their prize money is much bigger right now than ours.

"Maybe some played and they don't want to play it again. You're not treated the same [at the Olympics] as you are at tournaments. You are treated here as an equal--except maybe for the Dream Team. Maybe some players don't want to deal with that."

Gabriela Sabatini, who made short work of Silvia Farina, 6-1, 6-3, said she considered the Olympics "a unique experience" worth making sacrifices for. She also liked Gullikson's idea for a new format.

"We're not here just as individuals," she said. "I would probably like to feel more like I was playing on a team."

So would Hy-Boulais, who, other than losing to Seles, suffered one other disappointment.

It came during introductions.

"They didn't even say I was from Canada," she said.

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