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COMMENTARY

Where the Stars Don't Come Out

March 10, 2003|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

On the eve of the men joining the women at the Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells for what is always projected as a week of some of the best tennis in the world, the news was more who was not here than who was.

Andre Agassi, among the true marquee names in the game, withdrew Sunday night because of a right shoulder injury. Agassi said the injury, some muscles constricted around a nerve, is similar to one he experienced in 1999 that cost him several months of play. He said he was unable to predict how long it would keep him out this time.

He said he first felt it while practicing for a match last week in Scottsdale, Ariz., and knew it hadn't healed properly when he hit in a practice session for 30 minutes Saturday.

Add Agassi to a list of absentees that includes Pete Sampras and the Williams sisters, plus the injury withdrawal of Monica Seles a week ago, and you have a time that tries a tennis organizer's soul. That organizer, the always upbeat Charlie Pasarell, was disappointed at Agassi's withdrawal, but still upbeat.

"Of course I'm disappointed," Pasarell said. "But I don't get overwhelmed by things I cannot control. This is not the end of the world. Far from it. Sure, I'd love to have Pete here, and the Williams sisters, but I can't control that."

Still, it's not a good thing when an event considered the sixth most important in the world of tennis -- after the four Grand Slams and the Key Biscayne tournament later in March -- looks a little like a Broadway play down to its fourth understudy.

Sampras, who sent out possible retirement hints after the U.S. Open victory in September that marked his 14th Grand Slam title, announced in December that he would play this year, and said at the time that he would begin with a mid-February appearance at San Jose.

But he withdrew from that and from the event at Scottsdale three weeks later that is run by his brother, Gus. Pasarell said Sampras had called him a few weeks ago and said he still wasn't quite ready to come back.

"I told him I understood," Pasarell said, "and I told him we would announce that when he wanted us to."

They announced it Friday, the same day several newspapers ran the story.

The Williams sisters haven't played here since 2001, when Venus defaulted a semifinal match to Serena minutes before it was to start, saying she had tendinitis in her knee. Serena was booed by the fans for much of the first set of a final she won in three sets over Kim Clijsters.

Seles will be 30 in December and her last Grand Slam title, her ninth, was in the 1996 Australian Open. But despite fighting one injury after another, she remains a draw.

Sadly for the sport, those five names represent a sizable portion of the game's star quality. Say 90%. There is a big difference between great players and great attractions. Agassi, Sampras, the Williams sisters and Seles are both.

Patrick Rafter, Boris Becker, Jim Courier and Stefan Edberg had it, but they are gone. Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl had it, but they are long gone.

Steffi Graf and Martina Hingis had it, and they are gone. Chris Evert had it and she is long gone, and Martina Navratilova had it, and actually still does in her occasional doubles appearances on the tour.

Lleyton Hewitt is the No. 1 men's player in the world, and his presence here is worth the price of admission, understandably a fairly steep price these days in an almost-new stadium with top-of-the-line facilities and amenities.

But for all Hewitt's considerable skills on the court, they have yet to translate to a Sampras/Agassi attraction level off it. Maybe the retired Rafter, once the sport's leading matinee idol, said it best a year or so ago when he was asked to describe his fellow Aussie Hewitt and said, "Well, he's a nice little chap."

Hewitt's counterpart as No. 1-seeded woman here is his girlfriend, Belgium's Clijsters, No. 3 in the world behind Serena and Venus. Hewitt and Clijsters are a good story line, but when a reporter attempted to interview her on the subject, she refused if there were any questions about Hewitt.

It was not the National Enquirer or the New York Post asking. For tennis, it was an opportunity missed, and nobody on the WTA tour seemed able or interested enough to explain that to her.

The men's Nos. 3 and 4 here are Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain and Roger Federer of Switzerland. Great players both. Great attractions neither.

Andy Roddick is here, and a typical American crowd will get as juiced up watching him as he gets juiced up playing. Crowds here might also enjoy watching Michael Chang for one of the last times, or likable veteran Todd Martin. And Goran Ivanisevic, the quirky Croatian who always makes things interesting.

On the women's side, Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport seem to have new dedication to taking a run at the Williamses, and defending champion Daniela Hantuchova seems to get taller and slimmer and better at striking the ball each week.

No, all is not lost for this annual extravaganza at the Indian Wells Garden. Just say the bloom is off the rose a bit.

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