Facebook Twitter

PLAYERS IN WORLD OF HURT ON EVE OF THE U.S. OPEN

SHARE PLAYERS IN WORLD OF HURT ON EVE OF THE U.S. OPEN

Ouch.

The U.S. Open hurts.Pete Sampras, men's No.1 seed: bad ankle.

Goran Ivanisevic, No. 2 seed: bad hip flexor.

Jim Courier, No. 11 seed: bad attitude.

Andre Agassi, No. 1 personality: bad tennis.

Steffi Graf, No. 1 women's seed: bad back.

Martina Navratilova, would-be No. 4 seed: bad decision.

If tennis players went on strike, nobody would notice. And so this sport in the doldrums desperately needs a good show as this year's final Grand Slam event, the U.S. Open, begins Sunday.

Remember last year's men's semifinalists? Of course not. They were Pete Sampras, Alexander Volkov, Wally Masur and Cedric Pioline. The Open needs better this year. So does CBS. It can't live with Volkovs and Masurs and Piolines on Super Saturday, the day CBS puts on two men's semifinals and the women's final - which, by the way, was Steffi Graf against Helena Sukova last year, and isn't that the very definition of deadly dull?

So the Open needs a big comeback this year, and a star.

Sampras should be the star. He has an aura. Guys expect to lose to Sampras this year. He has already won the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and stands to be the first man since Mats Wilander won the Australian, French and U.S. Opens to win three of the four Grand Slams.

Except Sampras hurts. He has played only two Davis Cup matches since winning Wimbledon on July 3. He has tendinitis in his left ankle and so much pain that he pulled out of a doubles match on Wednesday in his last chance to prep for the Open, of which he is defending champion.

Which means that Ivanisevic, the long, loose, big-serving Wimbledon finalist and No. 2 seed, should be pumped. Instead he is sullen.

Ivanisevic retired from a match last week with that pulled hip flexor muscle. And besides, Ivanisevic hates the Open. He hates the food and the noise and the humidity and has never gotten past the fourth round. Don't pick Ivanisevic in the office pool (you have an office pool, don't you?).

Jim Courier, who came to the 1993 Open ranked No. 1 in the world, quit tennis two weeks ago, said he was burned out, didn't feel like winning much, was exhausted, in a bad mood, blah, blah, blah.

He sneaked home to Florida, surfed, sunned, and then popped up smiling last week and said, never mind, retirement's over, I'll play the Open.

Why is it so hard not to think that Nike, which pays Courier millions to wear its gear, changed his mind about playing America's championship? That couldn't happen, could it?

Because Nike's other star, Agassi, just doesn't have it. He seems slow and underprepared for tournaments these days. Most of his highlight film stars Brooke Shields, not a tennis racket.

The women aren't much better.

Graf lost in the first round of Wimbledon and took time off. Rest seemed to do nothing but give her back spasms. She finished a loss to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario last weekend with a burst of tears, and she played wearing a back brace. Graf pulled out of her Open prep last week, too.

And that Martina Navratilova farewell tour is just passing the Open by. TV has been filled with Martina. The Lifetime cable station did a retrospective. Barbara Walters did her star interview turn with Martina on Friday.

And Martina is ducking the Open.

She says she is tired and is taking time off before the fall indoor season and her last appearance at the Virginia Slims Championship. Resting for indoor tennis? Huh?

What this really is, is Martina never liked the Open, which she won four times. She feels the Open disses the women by making them play their final between the men's semis. She doesn't like the crowds and the crowded lockers.

So, for the first time since 1972, Navratilova is skipping the Open. It's dumb and a little spiteful. And the Open crowds, which appreciated Navratilova more than any other crowds, will be denied the chance to say goodbye.

It's why tennis is in trouble. The players are selfish. Navratilova owed the Open one last appearance. And women's tennis so lacks pizazz that the big question still is whether Monica Seles will ever come back. This will be Seles' second Open on the sidelines, and she's still the overwhelming presence.

Maybe Mary Pierce could change that. Pierce was fabulous in getting to the French Open final, then she skipped Wimbledon when she became afraid that her father - the one who hit her and so terrorized the family that he was given a restraining order - would show up. Pierce is back, and she played well in an Open prep last week in Montreal.

And maybe Sampras' ankle will be OK and he won't be too rusty.

Or maybe Boris Becker could make a run. Becker has played better than anyone since Wimbledon. He's won two tournaments and is having fun.

Playing almost as well as Becker has been Michael Chang. Maybe Stefan Edberg has another Slam in him.

At least those three are healthy and enthusiastic.

Which is about the best tennis has to offer right now.