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Senior writer Frank Deford saw things he didn't like while covering American tennis's biggest show (page 26). His report:
When the U.S. Open moved from Forest Hills to Flushing Meadow in 1978, the new center was very much the "county fair" that its founder, Slew Hester, then the president of the U.S. Tennis Association, had envisaged. It was a wonderful reflection of romantic America, brash and raucous, bursting its buttons, spontaneous and generous—even when it slipped into excess and vulgarity. With each succeeding year, though, the natural has been replaced by the freeze-dried, the Americana by the American dollar, until the Open bids fair to become little more than Manhattan's largest corporate dog-and-pony show. To the USTA, any display of tradition is sissy. Glitz is good. Expediency is excellent.
A large part of the problem is that the USTA has a revolving-door presidency; each CEO holds authority for only two years. This policy encourages short-timers in blazers to rush in and put a new brand on the USTA—and the Open—every 24 months.
The list of casualties from this year's new order is especially alarming. The longtime head of ball boys and girls, Pat Rooney, was let go. So was Ted Tinling, the grand maven of tennis and a protocol officer at all other Grand Slam events. The charming practice of having a special past champions' box in a corner of the stadium was done away with; where former champions once gathered in honor, they were just given seats. And the men's doubles competition for real old-timers, a sort of equivalent to baseball's Old-Timers' Day, was eliminated. So much for tradition.
Paid attendance hit 400,000, but the fans got shabby treatment. The night matches were a competitive disgrace, with big names meeting nobodies in a succession of 6-1, 6-2, 6-0 clobberings. Keeping track of the goings-on was particularly difficult. The U.S. Open remains the only Grand Slam tournament that has no scoreboards outside the show courts to advise fans of the progress of matches in the stadium, and TV monitors set up to replace the excellent old system of handregistered results were impossible to decipher. Inside the stadium, the old Omega-sponsored scoreboard at court level was replaced by a scoreboard high above the rim of the seats. Trouble was, the lighted scores were almost unreadable in the sun.
According to an Omega representative, a top USTA volunteer didn't care for the clanging sound made by tennis balls hitting the court-level scoreboard.
And nowhere could you get a small Coke or find a water fountain. You could, however, enjoy a small glass of champagne for $3.95. You want ice cream? Two twenty-five a cone. Worst of all, even though the USTA, a nonprofit organization, started off with $8 million in the bank from CBS and corporate sponsors for the Open, it sold most good seats in large blocks to companies (the cheapest ticket series this year went for $300). Thus, the average tennis buff was pretty much shut out unless he knew somebody or wanted to traffic with scalpers. One day, during a tense tiebreaker, I actually heard a guy named Stan close a deal with a guy named Ted over a portable telephone from his court-side seat. Just call it the Write-off Open.
SEE YOU LATER, PREVARICATOR
As a fourth-string nose guard for the University of Arizona, Pat Ahern doesn't get a lot of ink for his football exploits, but there was some interest in his summer job—wrestling alligators. That is, until the story was revealed as a crock.
Ahern jokingly filled out a questionnaire with that employment tidbit for the Wildcats' sports information department, thinking no one would pursue a walk-on for a story. But The Arizona Daily Star did, and Ahern described how he had supposedly stumbled into the job while visiting his grandfather near Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He claimed to have been instructed to taunt the creature with lines such as, "I'm going to turn you into a belt." Part of the danger, he deadpanned, was "if you got whacked in the back with his tail, it would be like getting hit with a big sword."