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Welcome to the Dog Days of Men's Tennis

July 21, 2002|BILL DWYRE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OK, tennis fans. Get out the sunscreen and the Fila caps. Tie your Nikes with double knots. Monday is kickoff.

The men's summer season begins, right here in Los Angeles, at UCLA's tennis stadium, home of the ATP Mercedes-Benz Cup. It is a gateway to that wonderful two months of heat and hell, leading to the ultimate two weeks of heat and hell, the U.S. Open, which starts Aug. 26.

Usually, there is nothing quite like it. Note the word "usually."

The Australian Open is down and under and so far away that only the true tennis fan gets goose-bumpy. The French is almost always a procession of unpronounceable names, sliding around on slow courts for three and four hours at a time and getting their socks dirty. And Wimbledon, well, it's just a marvelous aberration, the most important tournament in the world played on a surface that few will ever play on and even fewer will master. Grass-court season is a three-week trophy dash that ends in London and captures everybody's fancy as much with tradition and folklore as with great execution of the game.

But the U.S. Open and its lead-up hard-court events?

Now there's the true testosterone. There's where men are men and the weak need not apply.

They make all these silly TV shows out of survival situations and spend millions producing them when they ought to simply film the next month and a half of the men's tour at places such as Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Washington, Long Island, Atlanta and Toronto. These are places where the on-court thermometer can turn numbers higher than the serve speed clock. Watch the boys hit huge strokes, watch them chase down great lobs, watch them go to the back of the court and get sick to their stomachs.

This is when tennis sells itself in the United States. This is often make-or-break time for a game struggling to maintain its piece of the sports-world pie.

And this, tennis folks, could be a two-month disaster for the men's game.

The summer of 2002 could very well be remembered in the world of tennis as the summer of David Nalbandian or the summer of our discontent. Indeed, were it to be the first, it certainly would be the second.

Nalbandian is the young Argentine who somehow made his way to the Wimbledon final. He was so unheralded only his mother had heard of him.

He lost, of course, to Lleyton Hewitt, but the damage was done. The integrity of the men's game took a stake in the heart. Second-round loser Pete Sampras, who has won seven Wimbledon titles and, a few years ago, would have beaten the likes of Nalbandian left-handed, might as well have been under a suicide watch at his home in Beverly Hills.

Were Nalbandian to have shown any flashes of anything, a la Boris Becker in the mid-1980s when he crashed Wimbledon's party, tennis could point to a budding star. But Nalbandian has quickly followed his Wimbledon stunner with a series of early round losses in Europe. It's not his fault that his sport is so lousy at the moment that he got to the Wimbledon final.

So attractive was that Hewitt-Nalbandian final that it was soundly beaten in the TV ratings by the women's doubles final, featuring, of course, Venus and Serena Williams.

If Gertrude Stein were a tennis fan, she would sum up the state of the men's game quite easily: There's no there there.

It is currently a sport of baseline bangers, devoid of drama and purged of personality. It is a tour of young, nice-looking athletes who mostly handle their nomadic existence like robots and exude the same kind of charisma. If R2D2 would take up the game, he'd fit right in. Plus, he might be a better interview.

Sampras, whose attraction is in the artistry of his game and his successful pursuit of history, and Andre Agassi, as bright with his quotemaking as with his shotmaking, are still around. But they have been needed to carry this load on their backs too long.

Their skills are still superb and their chances of winning a bit more are still decent. But they should have been knocked off the marquee long ago.

Where is the personality in men's tennis? Where are the story lines? Where are the players who sell tickets as much by the way they carry themselves as by the number of matches they win? Where have you gone Boris Becker and Patrick Rafter?

This isn't an American gap, it's a sportwide chasm.

How many years can men's tennis go with a Wimbledon final between two guys who, playing on grass, only go to the net to check its height? How long can men's tennis market itself with a No. 1 player, Hewitt, who has the game and persona of a washing machine.

Right now, men's tennis is doing more than any other single entity to boost the ratings of the Golf Channel.

Know what the main topic around tennis clubs is these nights when the men sit around after their ladder doubles play? The Williams sisters. Know who the biggest star, the most talked-about male at Wimbledon was this year? John McEnroe, who never even took his racket out.

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