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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | TENNIS

Doubles Trouble Leaves Tennis Officials Facing Angry, Well-Heeled Mob

July 29, 1996|BILL DWYRE | TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

ATLANTA — In late afternoon here Sunday, the riot police descended on the Stone Mountain tennis stadium. Thirty-five of them arrived in 20 cars. They wore stern looks, heavy boots and bullet-proof vests.

People in ACOG shirts scurried about, earpieces in place, talking on cell phones and walkie-talkies.

Clearly, this was the real thing, the kind of tense Olympic moment that the organizers of these Centennial Olympic Games had been fearing and preparing for.

Tennis hooligans!

As the riot cops were arriving, this ruthless gang, numbering in the thousands, had descended on the entrance to Court 1, anger showing on their tanned faces, raised fists clenched over Rolex-clad wrists, united in a common cause and surging forward in their $300 designer Fila outfits.

And what was this common cause?

A desire to:

--Get their money's worth.

--See Andre Agassi play.

The sellout crowd of 12,000 had paid either $48 or $37, depending on location, for Center Court seats at the new tennis facility. Center Court customers also had the right to wander about and watch matches on other courts--except Court 1.

The Center Court crowd had seen Mary Joe Fernandez stomp a player from Argentina, Ines Gorrochtegui, in a little over an hour, watched the boring, surly style of tennis frequently offered by Conchita Martinez, a Spanish version of Buddy Ryan, and endured nearly three hours of rain delays. It was spoiling for trouble and someone in authority should have seen the crowd unrest developing.

But tennis fans, average income about a quarter-mil, usually suffer through such indignities with stiff upper lips, chatting about it later over cocktails at the club. Not this group. This bunch was one step from anarchy.

Then Ken Farrar, tournament referee, pushed them too far. He announced that, because of the rain delays, the Agassi-MaliVai Washington doubles match against Wayne and Ellis Ferreira would be moved from Center Court to Court 1.

That meant that all those people who had paid higher prices would get shut out of the action they had waited all day to see, and that the people who had bought tickets for the 5,000-seat Court 1, at $26 each, would get the big show of the day.

The announcement was made during Martinez's match against Natasha Zvereva. And the boos began. The chair umpire tried to calm things, asking the crowd to calm down and let the players play, since "these two players aren't to blame for this."

The boos only got louder.

That brought out the man who was to blame, Farrar, who took the microphone and, showing Henry Kissinger that his place in the world of diplomacy is safe, told the crowd, "We can take this match off this court, too, you know."

Naturally, the unrest escalated and soon the center court barbarians were at the gates to Court 1, clearly ready to storm them.

The chants began:

"CHANGE IT BACK!"

"WE WANT AGASSI!"

"FIX IT NOW!"

And they were just warming up. While an official in a straw hat using a portable megaphone tried to calm them down, proving to be a sand bag against a tidal wave, the crowd only got louder, spotted Bud Collins of NBC, and chanted, "Fix It Bud!" And then just "NBC!"

But they finally made their point when they began to chant, "More bad press! More bad press!"

The ACOG shirts started to scramble then, the blood visibly draining from their faces. And just as the storm troopers arrived, dressed in Georgia state police uniforms, the decision was made to give the fans what they wanted. Agassi would play doubles on Center Court, so all could see.

"Mob-aucracy," a grinning Collins called it.

Farrar later held a news conference, perhaps his first. He said he had merely wanted to get all the singles matches out of the way, but that he had made a mistake and underestimated the will of this crowd.

"When I talked with my tournament selection committee before we did this, nobody had a problem with the court change," Farrar said. "Nobody saw anything wrong with it. Except the 10,000 people on Center Court."

Who, as it turned out, went through all this to see Agassi and Washington, perhaps the 716th best men's doubles team in the world, lose anyway.

In the end, nobody was hurt. And in years to come, the Georgia riot cops will be able to lift their grandchildren onto their laps and tell them about the day they packed their pistols, grabbed their batons and faced down those roughnecks over there 'round Stone Mountain.

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