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Allowing that sport into the Games is an unforced error

After the recent announcement that tennis, pros and all, would be a medal sport in the 1988 Olympics, the first question that came to mind was this: Does tennis need the Olympics less than the Olympics need tennis, or is it the other way around?

Much of what makes the Olympics compelling is that, for the most part, they bring together athletes who don't compete regularly against one another—e.g., Soviet and American basketball players, East German and U.S. swimmers. Tennis is the most international of sports. The men's pro tour has 75 stops in 25 countries, the women's 59 in 18. As a result, the stars meet all the time. Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, for instance, have played 72 matches during their careers, John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl 26. Further, by the time the Olympics roll around in September 1988, all four of the year's Grand Slam events will have been played, and the No. 1 players will, most likely, have been determined. The Olympics will be anticlimactic.

Says Willi Daume, head of the IOC's eligibility committee, "Officials and players I talked with agree that the Olympic tennis tournament would be the Number 1 in the world. They see it above Wimbledon and the Davis Cup."

No charge for dreams, Mr. Daume. An Olympic gold has about as much chance of becoming more coveted than a Wimbledon championship as Jimmy Connors has of beating Carl Lewis in a footrace.

With rare exceptions, no athlete passes up a shot at the Olympics, but things will be different in Seoul with tennis, which will probably have an embarrassingly weak field. Already, a number of leading players have indicated that they may be otherwise engaged during the Olympic fortnight. One probable no-show will be McEnroe, who makes the point that pro tennis players enjoy more than their share of glamour and fame and that their presence at the Games would divert attention from athletes who toil in relative obscurity for most of their careers.

Other tennis pros will shun Seoul because they will be prohibited from capitalizing financially on their participation and because—heaven forbid—they might have to stay in the Olympic Village. Players will have to forgo prize money and endorsement income from two weeks before the start of the Games through the closing ceremonies. "What they came up with was completely wrong," says Mats Wilander, who earned $653,652 in prize money last year and at least that much off the court. "We have to stop for a month, and that will disrupt the circuit. We can't wear [advertising] patches. Either they let us play as we want, or we won't play."

Hold on, says Count Jean de Beaumont, an IOC member from France, who explains, "When a man who makes a million dollars a year lives in the Village, he has the Olympic spirit." Perhaps, but several pros, including Wilander and Navratilova, have stated that they have no interest in bunking with kayakers and shot-putters. "There's no way you can play your best tennis if you suddenly have to stay in a room with four other guys," says Wilander.

Another criterion the IOC set for Olympic qualification was that men "must have made themselves available" for Davis Cup play in 1987 or '88 and women must have done the same for Federation Cup. That probably eliminates Lendl, the No. 1-ranked man in the world, who has not played Davis Cup since 1985. Even if all the stars were to play in Seoul, the singles field of 64 men and 32 women (women's tennis is only half as interesting?) would not be of Grand Slam caliber because no country will be allowed more than three entrants per event. At present, the U.S. has 16 male players ranked among the first 64. Nearly half of the top 32 women are American.

Should a leading pro decide to become an Olympian, one problem might be determining which flag he or she will carry. What country should French-born, Cameroon-raised, Manhattan-dwelling Yannick Noah represent? What about Boca Raton, Florida's Hana Mandlikova, who, while playing for her native Czechoslovakia in the 1986 Federation Cup, married an Australian and has applied for Aussie citizenship? If England can entice Sweden's Anders Jarryd and France's Guy Forget, both of whom have homes in London, to represent the Union Jack, the Brits could be tough. But not as tough as the Monacans: West Germany's Boris Becker, Sweden's Joakim Nystrom and Yugoslavia's Slobodan Zivojinovic all call Monte Carlo home, as does Claudia Kohde-Kilsch of West Germany.

In returning tennis to the Olympics for the first time in 64 years and deeming professionals eligible, the IOC left itself an out: If the pros aren't a hit in Seoul, they won't be playing in Barcelona in '92. For that, at least, we can be grateful.