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They tried. Give every straw-hatted, bejeweled and earnest tennis official credit for that. They tried so hard to present a new U.S. Open, a kinder U.S. Open, a U.S. Open you could put your arms around and hug at Flushing Meadow. No more stink of garbage, no more smoke drifting in over the courts. No more long, tense walks for the players from locker room to center court. There was a sanitized stadium with walls so thick you could barely hear the subway cars rattling next door, and it was named for Arthur Ashe to help jump-start a new, multicultural era of American tennis. How was the U.S. Tennis Association to know that it takes far more than that to drain the brash, divisive, gritty New York soul from a New York event? Who could have predicted that after two weeks of superb tennis and the anointing of two young stars, you'd feel about as comfy hugging the 1997 U.S. Open as you would a petulant, tennis-bashing New York City mayor?
It's good to wonder what Ashe would have made of this affair. The 1997 Open was, after all, a tournament that began on Althea Gibson's 70th birthday with a tribute to Ashe during which his widow preached about "inclusion." The event then hit the timing, and ratings, jackpot when long-awaited African-American phenom Venus Williams, now 17, abruptly took control of her vast skills, grabbed the women's field by the throat and became the tournament's first unseeded women's finalist in the open era. Suddenly, tennis had a brilliant new talent—witty, intelligent and charismatic—a streetwise child of gang-plagued Compton, Calif., who could well be sports' next Tiger Woods. "I would hope so," Venus said. "He's different from the mainstream, and in tennis I also am. I'm tall. I'm black. Everything's different about me. Just face the facts."
Problem was, every step she took toward a dream showdown with world No. 1 Martina Hingis unearthed more resentment of Williams and her family among her rivals. Players complained publicly about her arrogance, her unfriendly demeanor, her trash-talking. Venus's mother, Oracene, fired back with concerns about the tour being racist, and things deteriorated from there: 11th-seeded Irina Spirlea intentionally collided with Williams on a changeover during their semifinal match, and afterward Spirlea said it happened because "she thinks she's the f—-ing Venus Williams." Then Venus's father, Richard—who built his daughter's game but told SI he stayed at the family's house in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., rather than go to the Open and "sit there moving my head left and right, screaming and cheering and looking silly"—chimed in with a telephone interview just in time for Sunday's final, saying he and Venus have both heard players use the word "nigger." Richard also called Spirlea's bump racially motivated and Spirlea herself "a big, ugly, tall, white turkey."
That set the stage for an even more mortifying moment: Just after Venus's appearance in the final, her press conference deteriorated into a standoff between her and white reporters repeatedly and vainly trying to elicit a response to Richard's remarks. As words flew—and one black reporter walked out in protest of his colleagues' questions—Venus seemed to shrink in her chair. "I think with this moment in the first year in Arthur Ashe Stadium, it all represents everyone being together, everyone having a chance to play," she said. "So I think this is definitely ruining the mood, these questions about racism."
It was sad and ugly. It was like nothing tennis has ever seen. "It was a little mess," said Hingis of the atmosphere at the Open. "Like a boxing fight at the end."
The shame, of course, lies in the bitter fact that Williams's Open debut will be remembered as a mixed blessing for the game. Hingis may have hammered the 66th-ranked Williams (who improved to No. 27 with her showing at Flushing Meadow) 6-0, 6-4 in Sunday's final to win her third Grand Slam event of the year, but Williams's progress as a player was undeniable; almost overnight she had become a force every player but one fears. "She got better and better," said Hingis after the final. "For the first time she showed that she can play great. I couldn't know she was going to play that well. But I didn't have many problems today. She plays the game I like: She tries to keep the ball in play. That's too dangerous if you play me."
Hingis's 1997 record of 63-2 is the fifth-best one-year mark in women's tennis history, and while Hingis benefits from the absence of Steffi Graf and from Monica Seles's slow fade, no one has come close to such a run at age 16. The prospect of watching Williams come into her spectacular gifts over the next few years—and perhaps offer Hingis a challenge—would be more than enough to energize tennis. But the unfolding of Williams's career also seems destined to provide plenty of freewheeling, and damaging, distractions that have little to do with tennis. "We couldn't care less what people think of us," Richard told SI.
That sentiment was clear on this fortnight—and that, too, is a shame. For no Open since 1991, when Jimmy Connors made his run at age 38, was more of a delight for the purist and casual fan. Nearly every day brought high-quality tennis and seesaw drama. The men's game, trying to fill the hole left by Andre Agassi's slide, found an engaging replacement in Australian dreamboat Patrick Rafter. With a face fit for Tiger Beat and a game Rod Laver could love, Rafter lunged to the championship with a stunning display of serve-and-volley tennis, beating Greg Rusedski of England 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 in the final. Few thought he could do it. Asked, after losing to him in the fourth round, if Rafter could win it all, Agassi said flatly, "No."
It wasn't an unreasonable prediction. After battling injuries and floundering on the tour for live years, the 24-year-old Rafter got energized by a five-set Davis Cup win over Cédric Pioline last February and began to make his move. Ranked 62nd at the start of the year, traveling without a coach and lacking a big-time agent, Rafter fought his way to five finals and lost them all. Even during his run in New York, taking on Agassi and No. 2 Michael Chang, the 13th-seeded Rafter never seemed unbeatable. "I felt everything was going great," he said, "but I also felt like, These guys can kick my bum as well. I thought Michael could have done it."
Once Agassi and Pete Sampras bowed out in the fourth round, Chang became the Open favorite. It was an odd position for a player who, since winning the 1989 French Open, has pumped up his serve, added variety to his game, proved himself to be the sport's greatest fighter—and failed to win another Grand Slam title. Three times in the last two seasons, including at last year's U.S. Open, Chang has scampered into a final only to lose badly. When Ashe Stadium opened with a parade of 37 champions two weeks ago, Chang, watching on TV, turned to his dad and said, "I wish I was one of them. I wish I was part of that."