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JORDAN WOULD DO WONDERS FOR DYING SPORT OF TENNIS

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Michael Jordan is playing the wrong sport.

No, this isn't another plea for His Airness to consider the error of his ways and return to basketball. What more can Jordan do in a sport he dominated, except make more money? He can make money anywhere.Jordan needs a challenge more than he needs money. He needs to hit the long shot in something other than basketball, to defy the odds as he defied the laws of gravity.

But why baseball? Why not a sport in which athleticism would be more of an asset?

Why not tennis?

The late Pete Maravich once told me he should have concentrated on tennis, rather than basketball. He wondered how good he might have been without teammates, with his athletic fate determined solely by skill and work ethic.

Maravich began playing basketball when he was 3. He spent summer days shooting baskets by himself in a hot gym when he was 8.

Imagine if he had been as dedicated to tennis. Imagine a 6-6 tennis player with his coordination and quickness.

Imagine Jordan on a tennis court.

Like Maravich, Jordan is a wondrously skilled athlete with size, quickness and coordination. And most important, with a fanatical desire to succeed.

Maybe he's too old to be the best in tennis. But he could have more of an impact in tennis than baseball.

Mike DePalmer, Tennessee's recently retired tennis coach, once coached high school basketball. He also believes Jordan could advance faster and further in tennis than baseball or golf.

"A lot of the skills in basketball are the same as in tennis, especially the footwork," DePalmer said. "I'd love to coach him."

Tennis traditionally has been a smaller athlete's game. That doesn't mean size is a handicap.

Indeed, it's a huge advantage at the net and on the serve. And consider the perils of lobbing the ball over the head of a 6-6 man who can all but fly.

"Players who were too short for roundball could play tennis and soccer," DePalmer said. "Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver were small. Stan Smith was the first of the really tall tennis players."

Nonetheless, most of the bigger athletes still don't choose tennis. Nor do the best ones.

DePalmer was asked how Maravich or Jordan might have fared in tennis if they had embraced the game at an early age.

"They would have dominated," he said.

It's too late for Jordan to dominate. It's not too late to accept the challenge of a foreign sport.

Of course, tennis needs Jordan more than Jordan needs another challenge. The same national magazine that promotes Michael Jordan videotapes tells us on its cover that tennis is dying.

Jordan could help resuscitate it. By merely picking up a racquet, he would do more for the sport than a teen queen could by winning Wimbledon.

There are sellout crowds all over the South as Jordan play baseball in the Class AA Southern League. Jordan will spend most of the evening standing in right field or sitting in a dugout.

Wouldn't you rather watch him serve? Or volley? Or cram a low-flying lob down the throat of some nameless tennis brat?

Give him a year of practice. Give him the best coaches. Give him a chance.

He might do wonders for a dying sport.