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S.L. Price
September 11, 2000
New Balls? Puh-leezA racy ad slogan points up an embarrassing truth about the men's game
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September 11, 2000

Tennis

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New Balls? Puh-leez
A racy ad slogan points up an embarrassing truth about the men's game

One of life's unassailable rules: A man does himself no favors by publicly discussing his crotch. What, then, are we to think when a sport starts obsessing over its collective toolbox?

The 2000 U.S. Open began with the men's tennis tour wielding a decidedly, um, in-your-face attitude. A freshly minted ATP ad campaign featuring the slogan NEW BALLS PLEASE unceremoniously lopped off the old pair of Andre Agassi, 30, and Pete Sampras, 29, and declared this the age of Jan-Michael Gambill, Tommy Haas, Lleyton Hewitt, Gustavo Kuerten, Magnus Norman, Marat Safin and other young guns, all in their late teens or early 20s. The campaign prompted the inevitable snickering questions and bad jokes; Sampras addressed the state of his manhood ("It's still healthy"), and Justin Gimelstob, the man he beat in the second round, addressed the state of Sampras's game ("If he's eager to play? Gimelstob said, the campaign will have to be retitled "His Balls Please"). Even the sainted Arthur Ashe got yanked into the act when fans protested a nude statue of an anonymous male player that was unveiled in the Arthur Ashe Commemorative Garden on Aug. 28. Testicles anyone?

Hidden insecurities, poor self-image: Freud wouldn't have had much trouble with this one. Yes, sometimes an ad is just an ad, until you consider that ATP officials spent the last few years pooh-poohing the WTA's preoccupation with form-fitting glamour and insisting that the men's tour wanted nothing to do with such nonsense. NEW BALLS PLEASE is the ATP's flag of surrender, an admission that the women's healthy television ratings and buzz-creating magazine covers had created a classic case of Venus envy. Further, it's not the only sign that the men are battling feelings of inadequacy.

Throughout the Open's first week, graybeard John McEnroe baited top women players Venus and Serena Williams with breast-beating pronouncements about the superiority of the male player, prompting Martina Hingis to sigh, "It's like kindergarten." The posturing shtick—which, predictably, spurred serial lech Donald Trump to offer $1 million for yet another tiresome Battle of the $exes—came off as one more pathetic bid to latch on to the women's public-relations gravy train, an older man's attempt to stay in the hunt when what he really needs is a nice long nap. Message to John: It's O.K. You still matter. Really.

All of which, incidentally, had nothing—and everything—to do with the actual state of men's tennis on the court. Amid all the distractions, the Open quietly highlighted the game's biggest problem: Aside from Sampras, no one seems the least interested in doing what it takes to sustain a great career. One big name after another lost placidly, making this one of the worst first weeks in men's Grand Slam history. Agassi's dispirited straight-set loss to Arnaud Cl�ment in the second round left plenty of doubt about his future. Ditto for two-time Open champ Patrick Rafter, 27, who departed after a five-set loss to Galo Blanco in the first round. Then there are the members of the Lost Generation, such as Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Mark Philippoussis and Marcelo R�os, who have had brief moments in the sun but, after straight-set losses last week, threaten to leave nothing permanent behind but the scent of underachievement.

As for those New Balls? Safin and Hewitt show great promise, but some of the other boys aren't giving off encouraging signals. Haas, at the tennis-prime age of 22, said last week that he won't be capable of making a big move "for maybe three or four more years." Asked to name a young player who might win several Grand Slam events and become a consistent No. 1, Sampras couldn't. "I don't see one guy dominating," he said. Finally he said perhaps Kuerten, a two-time French Open winner who came to Flushing Meadows seemingly poised to win his first Grand Slam tournament on hard courts, could. "He's maybe the one that stands out a little" Sampras said.

A few hours later Kuerten lost meekly to qualifier Wayne Arthurs in the first round and declared, "I don't want to be promoted. I'm already too much promoted. I want to be unknown."

Newness alone isn't enough. The size of the balls matters too.

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