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Original Issue

Foreign Idea

Fans may have come to the U.S. Open hoping to see homegrown talent, but a pair of European stars opened their eyes

Here it was the evening before Labor Day at the U.S. Open, and the tournament organizers were stuck. More than 23,000 fans had packed into Arthur Ashe Stadium for the night session. The moneyed types were ensconced in the suites; the television cameras were ready to roll; the Fuji blimp hovered overhead. The weather, 77º with a light breeze that hinted of fall, could not have been more agreeable. And with the remaining American players scheduled for other sessions, there was no homegrown talent to put on display.

In years past the tournament suits at the United States Tennis Association (USTA) had an unfortunate tendency to stress the US at the expense of the TA. Which is to say, Yanks routinely got top billing, while foreigners--no matter how talented or highly ranked--were treated like crazy uncles, shunted to the periphery. Television networks followed the same provincial blueprint, often deciding to air taped matches featuring American stars over live matches involving international ones.

On this late summer night, the marquee for the matches on the big stage read:

Kim Clijsters (Belgium) vs. Maria Vento-Kabchi (Venezuela)

followed immediately by

Roger Federer (Switzerland) vs. Olivier Rochus (Belgium)

In the opener Clijsters, showing off her extraordinary combination of power and speed, made fast work of Vento-Kabchi, 6-1, 6-0. Much is made of the lack of depth in the women's game, and such a lopsided match this late in a tournament supported that contention. But Clijsters's ball striking was so clean, her movement so fluid, her skills so comprehensive, that the lack of drama seemed a small price to pay.

Federer came next and, as usual, turned in a command performance, maneuvering the ball as if it were on a string, striking winners on the dead run and pulling off a dozen geometrically improbable shots--tennis equivalents of the massé--that provoked enthusiastic ovations from everyone in the building, including even poor Rochus, who clapped his left hand against his racket after one particularly rousing winner during Federer's straight-set victory. It was a night that gave the lie to the reports of tennis's demise.

In fact, if you follow the sport closely--as so few American fans do--you'll find countless examples of vitality. But here's the most salient one: With the possible exceptions of soccer and pro basketball, few sports are better poised to capitalize in a global economy. The ATP and WTA tours, which once staged matches from Hilton Head, S.C., to Los Angeles, now thread through outposts like Dubai, Tashkent and Ho Chi Minh City. In this year's Davis Cup final, Croatia defeated the Slovak Republic. Most tournament draws are suffused with players representing six continents.

But if tennis is to stay afloat in the U.S., it is essential that fans here take a shine to "nondomestic" players, all those Svetlanas and Guillermos who don't necessarily talk like or look like the kids on The O.C. By the end of 2005 there were just two Yanks ranked in the ATP's Top 10 and one of them, the incomparable Andre Agassi, turns 36 in April. While the Williams sisters showed that they're still formidable players when they're committed--Serena took the '05 Australian Open and Venus shook off four years' worth of doldrums to win Wimbledon for the third time--American players are a diminishing presence in the women's game as well. And a quick scan of the nationalities of the top juniors (only a total of four Americans are ranked in the top 20 among both males and females) suggests that the trend isn't going to reverse anytime soon.

With any luck, that Sunday night session at the U.S. Open was a watershed moment. The fans were entertained by two vastly talented, eminently likable players. Not one member of the near-sellout crowd stormed the box office demanding a refund. No sponsors withdrew their support, wondering why American stars weren't on center stage. The domestic television ratings didn't go into free fall; in fact, they were on par with the Sunday night session the previous year.

The following weekend Federer and Clijsters claimed the his and hers singles titles at the 2005 U.S. Open. The 22-year-old Clijsters finally won a major after losing four finals. Federer, 24, put the finishing touch on another laureled year that saw him go 81-4 and amplify discussions about his being the best male player ever. By then, they'd both established some identity and currency--some brand penetration, as they say on Madison Avenue--in the U.S. market. When they held their trophies aloft to raucous applause, they smiled, savoring the sound track of a stadium full of American tennis fans embracing world champions, their country of origin be damned.

THE BEST . . .

Best man
He won 11 singles titles, including the French Open--and 89% of his matches. But because Rafael Nadal has the misfortune of playing in the Era of Federer, he finished a distant second in the rankings.

THE BEST . . .

Nicole Vaidisova finished No. 15. The 16-year-old's combo of game, blonde tresses and multinational appeal might well make her the sport's next crossover star.

THE BEST . . .

On-court comeback
Her career jeopardized by a torn tendon and a cyst in her left wrist, Kim Clijsters started the year ranked 134th. She recovered to win a WTA-high nine titles and wound up No. 2, behind Lindsay Davenport.

THE BEST . . .

Off-court comeback
Asked if anything had not been working for him after an easy win, Andy Roddick responded, "Yeah, I couldn't get cellphone service in the stadium this morning."

THE BEST . . .

Attempt at osmosis
Hoping the magic of red-hot Ivan Ljubicic would rub off, France's Michael Llodra spent 15 minutes during the NASDAQ 100 Open crouched in Ljubicic's locker. Naked.

THE BEST . . .

Reason not to pay tribute to a retired player
Russian tennis chief Shamil Tarpishchev asserted that the national federation would not hold a ceremony honoring Yevgeny Kafelnikov until the 31-year-old former player lost weight.

THE BEST . . .

Alibi, women's division
After Maria Sharapova dusted her at Wimbledon, Sesil Karatantcheva, a 15-year-old Bulgarian, said, "I guess it's the puberty's fault."

THE BEST . . .

Alibi, men's division
After failing a test for a banned substance, doubles specialist Mariano Hood blamed the result on his anti-hair-loss medication. He was one of three Argentinean players to have flunked a drug test in 2005.


Photograph by Ron C. Angle/BEImages Sports

GLOBAL WARMING Despite their lopsided matches, Clijsters (top) and Federer won over the U.S. crowd (and TV audience) with flawless play.