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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | TENNIS

Upsetting End for U.S. Duo

September 22, 2000|BILL DWYRE | TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

SYDNEY, Australia — Like a ball of yarn, the United States men's Olympic tennis team continued to unravel today.

With the unexpected early departure of its highly regarded doubles team, Alex O'Brien and Jared Palmer, the men were down to one hope, Jeff Tarango. (Tennis fans may want to read that sentence twice.)

And Tarango was no sure thing to keep the Stars and Stripes afloat until the end of the day, since he had a match (which began after press time) against dangerous 22-year-old Mariano Zabaleta of Argentina, 10 years younger than Tarango and, at No. 55, ranked 22 spots higher.

The best U.S. hope continued to be its women, led by the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, who won their opening doubles match easily Thursday night. Then Venus, perhaps inspired by the presence in the crowd of Bill Gates and Chelsea Clinton, presumably not together, beat Germany's Jana Kandarr today, 6-2, 6-2, advancing to the quarterfinals. American Monica Seles had a night match today.

Venus Williams, who has won 29 matches in row, next faces Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario of Spain, the last person to beat her.

Top-seeded Lindsay Davenport of Laguna Beach, who pulled out Thursday because of a foot injury, decided to have her medical work done at home and flew to the United States today.

The fate of O'Brien and Palmer, 6-2, 6-4 losers to lightly regarded Mark Knowles and Mark Merklein of the Bahamas, is the flip side of all those upbeat Olympic-moment stories.

O'Brien and Palmer, former teammates at Stanford in the early 1990s, decided a year ago to separate from regular tour partners--because those tour partners weren't American--and join up for Davis Cup matches and the Olympics. That was no small sacrifice, considering that each had won a Grand Slam event with somebody else.

The union became fairly successful, with a gradual ascent to No. 1 in the world, achieved when they won at Indian Wells in March. Their first goal, a Davis Cup spot, became reality in April, when they were selected to play against the Czech Republic at the Forum. The U.S. team, saved by final-day heroics from Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, beat the Czechs, but O'Brien and Palmer lost their doubles match and were not asked back for the next round in Spain.

Despite results below their ranking in the Grand Slam events, they stayed high enough to get the berth on the Olympic team. So, ranked No. 4 in the world, O'Brien and Palmer entered the Olympic tournament with a No. 2 seeding; a draw that kept them away from the Australian Woodies, Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge, until the final, and very high hopes.

But then they faced a loose, go-for-broke, no-pressures Bahamas team that quickly punctured their Olympic bubble. Knowles and Merklein broke O'Brien's serve early, ran off to a 4-0 lead and never allowed the Americans a break point.

"We never even got a sniff," said a dejected O'Brien, who shared an unusually introspective news conference afterward with Palmer.

"I don't think I have ever felt worse in my career," O'Brien said, adding quickly that he might go out into the parking lot somewhere and break all his rackets. "If you see a lot of debris, that will be mine."

Palmer echoed O'Brien's sentiments that the early losses of teammates Michael Chang, Todd Martin and Vince Spadea--not to mention the decisions of Agassi and Sampras not to play here--provided an opening for an American bright spot.

"And then we get out there and are kind of shellshocked," he said. "We came in with high expectations and we go out there and get hammered."

O'Brien said, "I'm just feeling sorry for myself here. I know it is just a tennis match, that I'll survive and there will be brighter days. But right now, sitting here talking to you guys, saying we didn't get the job done, I feel like an idiot."

O'Brien is 30, Palmer will be 30 next July. But they said they would keep playing together, at least for now.

"It is like being married," said O'Brien, who isn't. "You need to talk everything out."

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