New Balls? Puh-leez
A racy ad slogan points up an embarrassing truth about the men's
One of life's unassailable rules: A man does himself no favors
by publicly discussing his crotch. What, then, are we to think
when a sport starts obsessing over its collective toolbox?
The 2000 U.S. Open began with the men's tennis tour wielding a
decidedly, um, in-your-face attitude. A freshly minted ATP ad
campaign featuring the slogan NEW BALLS PLEASE unceremoniously
lopped off the old pair of Andre Agassi, 30, and Pete Sampras,
29, and declared this the age of Jan-Michael Gambill, Tommy Haas,
Lleyton Hewitt, Gustavo Kuerten, Magnus Norman, Marat Safin and
other young guns, all in their late teens or early 20s. The
campaign prompted the inevitable snickering questions and bad
jokes; Sampras addressed the state of his manhood ("It's still
healthy"), and Justin Gimelstob, the man he beat in the second
round, addressed the state of Sampras's game ("If he's eager to
play," Gimelstob said, the campaign will have to be retitled "His
Balls Please"). Even the sainted Arthur Ashe got yanked into the
act when fans protested a nude statue of an anonymous male player
that was unveiled in the Arthur Ashe Commemorative Garden on Aug.
28. Testicles anyone?
Hidden insecurities, poor self-image: Freud wouldn't have had
much trouble with this one. Yes, sometimes an ad is just an ad,
until you consider that ATP officials spent the last few years
pooh-poohing the WTA's preoccupation with form-fitting glamour
and insisting that the men's tour wanted nothing to do with such
nonsense. NEW BALLS PLEASE is the ATP's flag of surrender, an
admission that the women's healthy television ratings and
buzz-creating magazine covers had created a classic case of Venus
envy. Further, it's not the only sign that the men are battling
feelings of inadequacy.
Throughout the Open's first week, graybeard John McEnroe baited
top women players Venus and Serena Williams with breast-beating
pronouncements about the superiority of the male player,
prompting Martina Hingis to sigh, "It's like kindergarten." The
posturing shtick--which, predictably, spurred serial lech Donald
Trump to offer $1 million for yet another tiresome Battle of the
$exes--came off as one more pathetic bid to latch on to the
women's public-relations gravy train, an older man's attempt to
stay in the hunt when what he really needs is a nice long nap.
Message to John: It's O.K. You still matter. Really.
All of which, incidentally, had nothing--and everything--to do with
the actual state of men's tennis on the court. Amid all the
distractions, the Open quietly highlighted the game's biggest
problem: Aside from Sampras, no one seems the least interested in
doing what it takes to sustain a great career. One big name after
another lost placidly, making this one of the worst first weeks
in men's Grand Slam history. Agassi's dispirited straight-set
loss to Arnaud Clement in the second round left plenty of doubt
about his future. Ditto for two-time Open champ Patrick Rafter,
27, who departed after a five-set loss to Galo Blanco in the
first round. Then there are the members of the Lost Generation,
such as Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Mark Philippoussis and Marcelo Rios,
who have had brief moments in the sun but, after straight-set
losses last week, threaten to leave nothing permanent behind but
the scent of underachievement.
As for those New Balls? Safin and Hewitt show great promise, but
some of the other boys aren't giving off encouraging signals.
Haas, at the tennis-prime age of 22, said last week that he won't
be capable of making a big move "for maybe three or four more
years." Asked to name a young player who might win several Grand
Slam events and become a consistent No. 1, Sampras couldn't. "I
don't see one guy dominating," he said. Finally he said perhaps
Kuerten, a two-time French Open winner who came to Flushing
Meadows seemingly poised to win his first Grand Slam tournament
on hard courts, could. "He's maybe the one that stands out a
little," Sampras said.
A few hours later Kuerten lost meekly to qualifier Wayne Arthurs
in the first round and declared, "I don't want to be promoted.
I'm already too much promoted. I want to be unknown."
Newness alone isn't enough. The size of the balls matters too.
Sydney off My Mind
Gold medals shining, flags waving, a president shaking your hand:
Who wouldn't want to take part in the Olympics?
"It's not worth it," says Martina Hingis. "It's more important to
be ready for the indoor season."
"I grew up to win the Grand Slam," says Jan-Michael Gambill. "I
didn't grow up thinking I'd play the Olympics."
"It's just very difficult," says Anna Kournikova.
"It's a long trip," says Pete Sampras. "I never really considered
The tennis tour takes a brutal detour next week, when players
still recovering from the hard-court season travel around the
globe to Sydney. The question is, why bother? Olympic tennis has
only the slightest hold on the players. Yes, Lindsay Davenport,
Monica Seles and the Williams sisters could combine for a U.S.
medals sweep in women's singles and doubles, but when the game's
No. 1-ranked woman, most promising young U.S. man, most popular
draw and best player ever have no interest in a tournament, it's
time to question its existence.
If the IOC and the International Tennis Federation persist in
pretending that tennis is an Olympic sport, then the 64-player
format should be dropped in favor of a team event like the Davis
and Fed cups. Until then, expect more patchwork squads like the
2000 U.S. men's, which includes aging stalwarts Michael Chang and
Todd Martin and international-incident-in-waiting Jeff Tarango.
America also is counting on Andre Agassi but may soon be forced
to adjust. Plagued by the recent news that his mother, Elizabeth,
has breast cancer, Agassi turned in a distracted performance last
week when he lost to Arnaud Clement in the second round. He
immediately jetted home to be with his mom and sister Tamee--who
earlier this year also was found to have breast cancer--and is
reconsidering going to Sydney.
He shouldn't think twice. For any tennis player, especially him
at this moment, Olympic tennis isn't worth the trouble.
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Kuerten entered the Open like a lion and left like a lamb after an inexplicable first-round fleecing.