Originally created 05/27/98

Tennis lacking rivalries that used to exist



The beauty about sports, as in life, is competition. We all have our rivals, whether it be your neighbor and their shiny new Mercedes, or whether it's your co-worker and the raise they just received.

Rivalries are what make sports sexy. More than anything, sports is about choosing sides. It's about picking allegiances and defending them to your grave.

You're either on the Cowboys bandwagon or you're throwing stones at it. You're either buying the Air Jordan propaganda or you're scoffing at it at every conceivable moment.

Rivalries allow no gray matter, yet they can make Supreme Court judges blind to the facts.

This is why I find it so frustratingly difficult to turn on a men's tennis match, especially with the red clay at Roland Garros serving as the backdrop for the French Open these next two weeks.

When tennis was cool, and I'm talking the 1980s here, there were service lines in the clay, loyalties to claim, Ivan Lendl lovers and Ivan Lendl haters.

This is the image problem afflicting today's men's tennis circuit. Taking sides is a enormous dilemma because this game is an amoeba looking for a spine.

In the middle is Pete Sampras, the emotionless champion who lacks not only an on-court persona, but also suffers from a lack of foils needed for us to measure his greatness.

Where Borg had McEnroe, McEnroe had Connors, Connors had McEnroe, Lendl had Wilander, Edberg had Becker, Sampras has endured through a court-jester (Andre Agassi) and a court-coverer (Michael Chang).

He is No. 1 practically by default, and it need not matter if he ever claims his elusive French title. There are no sides to take in men's tennis because aside from the robotic serve-and-volleyer, who's out there for consumption?

And if you mention Chang, I'd point out that after stealing the French a decade ago from Edberg, the diminutive baseliner has reached the finals of only two majors since. There can be no rivalry until Chang starts winning when it matters, and in tennis it only matters in London, in Paris, in Queens and in Melbourne.

Don't bother with Agassi. Since he became Mr. Suddenly Susan, he's suddenly disappeared, the two-time major winner still with major talent but without major desire.

Then you have your assortment of specialists. Dirt-ball junkers like Marcelo Rios, Thomas Muster and Gustavo Kuerten. Hart-court boomers like Patrick Rafter, Greg Rusedski and Richard Krajicek.

Sampras, and tennis followers alike, still search for an enemy, another side to possibly take for those not interested in repetitive humdrum offered up by the world's No. 1.

So for all those confused, may I suggest tuning in the women's side of the draw.

For it is here where the women have overcome this plague of parity by establishing some throne threats.

Martina Hingis is the women's No. 1 only because Steffi Graf wasn't around to put the teenager in her place. Unfortunately Lindsay Davenport is the women's Michael Chang, for she too cannot solve her game's leader.

But there are actually matches to look forward to on the women's side, as two opposite forces are challenging the Swiss Miss for supremacy.

The American challenger likes to proclaim herself "the female Tiger Woods," and Venus Williams certainly has game.

Anna Kournikova certainly has the look but the Jana Novotna affliction of near-misses. Williams and Kournikova may both have their chance to become Hingis upstagers later this tournament.

But to entrench themselves as women's tennis much-needed rivalry, wins against Martina can't be counted on one Venus braid.