Despite the early exits of Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras at the French Open, don't ring a death knell just yet for American men's tennis. With Jim Courier retired and Sampras, Agassi, and Michael Chang pushing 30, publications from The New York Times to Esquire are bemoaning the fact that American men's tennis is headed the way of Ban-Lon. But they've sung this tune before.
When Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe wound down their careers in the mid '80s, it led to an even louder round of wailing and gnashing of teeth. (Indeed, one of the few contrarian voices was our late colleague Ross Wetzsteon, who, in Sport magazine, touted the new generation of American players, named above, who dominated the '90s.) The problem, of course, is that trying to figure out who's going to be number one in five years is a little like looking at a bunch of high school pitchers and trying to decide who's going to be Kerry Wood and who's going to be Todd Van Poppel. "It's really hard to predict," says Tennis magazine senior editor James Martin.
Players who excel in tennis's junior ranksand it should be noted that none of America's four veteran champions ever won a major juniortitleare usually like Rookie League control pitchers: smart and disciplined, but probably not talented enough for big-time success. Instead, champions like Sampras, McEnroe, and Boris Becker have tended to find control and confidence all of a sudden and go from losing first-round matches to winning Grand Slams in a heartbeat. So while top prospects Andy Roddick and James Blake could step up, it's more likely that America's next champion is some pimple-faced topspinner still trying to keep that howitzer forehand in the court. As far as dissing the USTA's development program, the sport's suits shouldn't get the blame for the lack of an heir apparent any more than they can take credit for Sampras and associates. "You can build top 10 players," says Martin. "But you don't build champions. You just hand them a racket."
Take a Whack at Rocker
Jockbeat is of the mind that John Rocker's latest idiocy means we won't get to see the day that Shea Stadium fans rain down C- and D-cells on the reliever's head. The Braves organization seems certain to rid itself of this bullpen biggot before Atlanta comes to town at the end of the month. It'll be too bad for a number of reasons, not least of which is because it'll all but kill a witty dot.com PR stunt.
Romp.com, a self-described "freewheeling Internet entertainment destination," is set to unveil John Rocker piñatas all over town for New Yorkers to take a whack at during the Mets-Braves series at Shea. The tie-in is that among the animations, videos, and games at Romp.com is a feature called "Celebrity Piñata." Sounds like a fun way for city-dwellers to strike back at the Rock-head without resorting to low-level felonies (à la battery chucking), and for Romp.com to get some free air time to boot.
There's a catch, though: the content at Romp.com is about as offensive as anything that Rocker uttered to Sports Illustrated back in December. Among the animations is a series called "Sports Online," which follows the reporting of two neanderthal play-by-play guys. An early episode takes us to the "Tang and 'Poon Invitational" for a look at women's tennis and, as one of the sports-jerks says, "beaver shots." Typical sports banter from one of the animated analysts: "The commie chick [Anna Kournikova] is easily number 1 in the nice-ass department." Charming.
For a Web site inspired by, as its media kit says, "listening to Howard Stern, watching South Park, and flipping through Maxim all at the same time," this level of sexism should be expected. But their public relations maneuver is, uh, a tad misleading. More appropriate would have been to hang blow-up dolls all over town.
- You'll want to wash your hands after reading Frank Deford's winkingly self-referential, smugly self-satisfied Sports Illustrated cover piece on Anna Kournikova. ("[B]oth woman and child, she can also by turns be cagey or guileless, wise or foolish, cocky or dependent, tender or tough, coquettish or direct, beautiful or . . . ") With his eight-page oh-so-ironic ode to the teen queen (outfitted with several come-hither pics and even a peek-a-boo panty shot of a 12-year-old Kournikova), Deford nicely nabs the king-of-slime mantle from the usually reliable Rick Reilly (off week, Rick?). The piece lets Deford both shake his venerable head at the fawning over Kournikova while perpetuating it in grand style. And it's a shamethere's a real story, an important one, in the out-of-control adoration of an unproven female athlete. Too bad this one isn't it. . . .
- We sure hope NBC's copious Sydney Olympics coverage includes sound, well-reported journalism (and less jingoism than in '96), but the "Going for the Gold" segments on the peacock network's Nightly News leave us doubtful. A profile of '84 gold medal marathoner Joan Benoit Samuelson's comeback at age 42 seemed left on the shelf too long. She'd already failed to make the U.S. squad in the marathon trials in February, and though the script claimed she still had a shot in the 10,000-meter run on the track, the Maine native hasn't even qualified for July's trials in that event. Last Tuesday's snippet on tattooed and tongue-pierced Blaine Wilson asserted he was a solid prospect to become the first individual Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics from the U.S. in 16 years. This would be news to Trent Dimas, who earned gold on the horizontal bar in Barcelona in 1992. . . .
- The obvious solution to the Mets' shortstop problems while Rey Ordóñez rehabs his broken arm: Bring back Garth! Hey, it couldn't possibly hurt the offense.
Contributors: Allen St. John, Ramona Debs, Joanna Cagan, Peter Gambaccini, Paul Lukas
Sports Editor: Miles D. Seligman
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