Last week the U.S. Tennis Association unveiled Arthur Ashe Stadium, the new centerpiece of the U.S. Open, with fireworks and sweet words. Intended to pay tribute to a racial pioneer, the dedication ceremony instead boiled down to a battle between two spirits: Arthur's and The Donald's. Guess who won?
This was, it seemed, one of those can't-miss opportunities for a flailing sport: a nationally televised, once-in-a-lifetime chance for tennis to draw new fans and cloak itself in multiracial glory. The Reverend Desmond Tutu, Whitney Houston and Tony Bennett showed up, as well as 37 winners of the U.S. men's or women's championship from all over the globe. Also there, standing at the front of his $85,000 luxury box while virtually everyone else in the stadium sat—his hair aswirl, permascowl in place, thumbs hooked in his bell was billionaire Donald Trump. He looked as if he owned the place.
There were nice moments. Jeanne Moutoussammy-Ashe spoke of her husband's life, Houston sang, Don Budge nobly limped onto the court. But The Donald glowered throughout, and it was impossible for the event to resist his powerboy aura: The moneyed crowd was hardly the audience Ashe hoped to bring to tennis, and his selfless example was lost on the biggest-name American players. Jimmy Connors was playing elsewhere and sent no word. Andre Agassi bolted the grounds before the ceremonies began, and Pete Sampras, in the dressing room preparing for a first-round match, couldn't be bothered to step outside for a simple wave. "They should've been out there," says Mark Miles, the USTA's chief executive officer.
Well, yes, but such public relations embarrassments are the risk you run in a game smaller than the athletes who play it. Tennis has always been crippled by the antics of a spoiled few who, no matter their backgrounds, too often end up reinforcing the sport's elitist image. Sensing that the grand opening of the $254 million show palace did nothing to dispel that, the USTA three days later announced a $31.4 million drive to attract 800,000 new players over the next five years.
This move, too, was laden with Donaldism. Big numbers were thrown around, but few specifics: The USTA will target 20 cities to blitz with ads and coaching grants and equipment, but no tennis official could name any of the 20 or explain how the money would be doled out. Though the sport's ills are hardly a secret, no official would even acknowledge that those ills were the reason for the program. It was like announcing a Marshall Plan without admitting there was a World War II. The whole exercise came off as both laudable and yet beside the point.
The fact is, tennis has never been "saved" from the ground up. None of the stars of the past or present came out of any grassroots effort; they emerged from families with the drive and resources to send a Chris Evert onto the court every day. The tennis boom of the 1970s was a trickle-down affair, not vice versa.
Such dependence on personality has been tennis's curse and blessing since the open era began, and nothing will change that. The sport's eternal good news, of course, is that with all the mourning about the old days, it takes only a few compelling faces to bring them right back. The bad news is that when personalities dry up, tennis does too—no matter how well it's played. Today's game is more competitive, more powerful than ever, but the sport is nothing like its country-club cousin, golf. People watch the Masters no matter who's playing. Few tennis nuts are trying to pick up tips off TV.
No, this is a sport always waiting for Andre (above). The men's game has been in a deep freeze since Agassi's recent flameout and dogged by incessant questions about his comeback. The women's tour had dropped into limbo, too. Who would be the next diva? Who had that elusive mix of charisma, talent and mystery that lands a guest shot on MTV? Agassi got a legion of balding white men to shave their heads and grow bad goatees. Women's tennis was waiting for its version. Waiting for its Andre.
Last week they both showed up. Venus Williams sailed into the Open's second week, shaking her beaded braids, seducing the cameras with her quirky exuberance. Agassi rolled through the early rounds, with TV ratings jumping 75% when he played his first match. He dubbed the hue of his shirt "hard pink," and just like that the color got hot. Men of a certain age eyed their razors. These were vital signs. For the moment, tennis lived.