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U.S. Tennis Takes One Giant Leap, One Big Step Backward

Commentary: Women boast a dream team with Davenport, Seles and the Williams sisters while the men are sorely lacking in star power and threats.


SYDNEY, Australia — Olympic tennis begins Tuesday, and the United States will field half a dream team. The other half would be the men's team, where "nightmare" might be the operative term.

U.S. women are seeded Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in singles. In order: Defending champion Lindsay Davenport, Venus Williams and Monica Seles. The doubles team of Venus and Serena Williams is unseeded because the Williamses haven't played enough for seeding points. But as champions of the '99 French and U.S. Opens and this year's Wimbledon, they are certainly among the favorites to win here.

Coach Billie Jean King is certainly among those who see her team as dreamy.

"If you fell asleep and dreamed about which four players you could get on your team," she said, "you couldn't do better than waking up to these four."

Then there is Stan Smith, who will coach the men's team in the absence of Davis Cup captain John McEnroe, who, unlike other Davis Cup captains--and like many of the players he criticizes for backing out of international competitions--apparently doesn't do Olympics. Smith, a class act who is always there to help out U.S. tennis programs, is probably wishing now he didn't, either.

Yes, there is his doubles team, the likely medal-winning pair of Alex O'Brien and Jared Palmer, seeded second here behind the Australian Woodies, Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge. O'Brien and Palmer were No. 1 in the world for a couple of months last spring.

In singles, the best U.S. chance, if you believe seedings, is Michael Chang at No. 16, whose current No. 24 world ranking is not the best the U.S. had to offer, but the best the U.S. could manage to get here.

No-shows included current No. 1 player Pete Sampras, who, to his credit, told the USTA all along that he wasn't coming all the way to Australia for an event a week after the U.S. Open and never wavered, despite being pressed to change his mind.

Sampras turned 29 in August and has battled through a laundry list of injuries to get his coveted record 13 Grand Slam titles. He played one Olympics, 1992 on slow clay in Barcelona, didn't figure to do well and didn't. But don't be surprised to see him angling for a spot in Athens in 2004, if his body and game hold together. His ancestors are from Greece, and he has talked about this as a nice twilight-of-his-career event.

Andre Agassi, winner of the '99 French and U.S. Opens and this year's Australian before beginning to fade, still holds a No. 5 ranking, and still sings the praises of his Olympic experience in Atlanta in 1996, when he won the gold. But during the U.S. Open, where he lost in an early round, he revealed that both his mother and sister are fighting breast cancer. Clearly, that made a withdrawal here understandable.

Minus Sampras and Agassi, the U.S. team was left with an aging but always battling Chang as its next highest ranked player at No. 24, followed by Jan-Michael Gambill, a 23-year-old with as much promise as peaks and valleys in his game, at No. 25. But Gambill cited schedule problems, the tennis-tour catch phrase for "I don't want to bother," and the U.S. tennis powers frowned in dismay. Only in America do 23-year-olds with no tour victories and a chance to be No. 146 by this time next year turn down chances to play in the Olympics.

To Gambill's credit, he at least paused long enough to look back. "I hope I'm not making a mistake," he said recently.

That left U.S. men's tennis with a singles team to go with Chang that included Todd Martin, who, at No. 39 belongs because he is a popular and talented player who has somehow willed himself into two Grand Slam finals. He is also very likely to be the next Davis Cup captain once McEnroe storms away in anger over whatever.

Then there are Jeff Tarango and Vince Spadea, who at Nos. 77 and 157, respectively, don't really figure here.

Tarango, from Stanford and Manhattan Beach, is explosive, controversial and perhaps best remembered for being ejected from a match at Wimbledon when he got into an altercation with a chair umpire, whom Tarango's wife eventually slapped. Interestingly, in his 12 years on the tennis tour, Tarango has never represented the U.S. in any international competition.

Not so for Spadea, who, in the middle of his worst season, with a 2-24 record so far this year and a 21-match losing streak at one point, is making his second appearance for his country this season. He played in a dead-rubber Davis Cup singles match in Spain this summer, with his loss giving Spain a 4-0 lead.

Look for Spadea to soon be 2-25. His first-round match is against Aussie favorite Pat Rafter, twice a U.S. Open champion.

U.S. Open champion Marat Safin of Russia, who won the President's Cup in Uzbekistan on Sunday for his fifth ATP Tour title of the year, is seeded No. 1, and French champion Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil is No. 2.

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