Wimbledon semifinalists set for ATP

The Cincinnati Enquirer

No last-minute pleading for Paul Flory. No need to grovel in the presence of the next great tennis player. The ATP Championship's tournament director already has all of his baselines covered.

Whichever way the wind blows at this wackiest of Wimbledons, Flory figures to benefit from the prevailing breeze. All four of the surprising men's semifinalists in tennis' most prestigious tournament - Todd Martin, MaliVal Washington, Richard Krajicek and Jason Stoltenberg - have already committed to next month's ATP. If Flory weren't so cautious, this might call for champagne.

''There's a side of me that says it's great to see it open up like this,'' Flory said Friday afternoon. ''If it focuses attention on more than the top five (players), I think that has a beneficial effect on the sport in general. But there's the other side of me that wonders what effect not having an (Andre) Agassi or a (Pete) Sampras win Wimbledon will have. I don't know the answer.''

Much as professional sports promoters prize exciting new blood, they still find comfort in familiar box-office favorites. The one is a prospect, the other a proven commodity. Though the critics might rave about some daring new drama, it is the musical revival that dominates Broadway. In sports, as in show business, you learn to sell whatever they're buying.

''We're a public that wants to tune in on the celebrities,'' Flory said. ''Real aficionados of tennis know there's great depth. The top players have been telling us all along, 'I can get beat in the first round by the 100th (ranked) player in the world.'

''But that's a tough sell to the public. If they don't see an Agassi or a (Michael) Chang or a Sampras, they feel they're not seeing the person with all the talent.''

Where have the Goliaths gone?

Among our enduring myths is that American sports fans routinely root for the underdog. The truth is we are terminally star-struck. We might cheer for little David, but we know it is Goliath who gives him context. Wimbledon attendance is down 5 percent this year, and the decline is widely attributed to the early elimination of popular players.

More than in most other major sports, the tennis landscape is a land of giants. Five players - Sampras, Agassi, Boris Becker, Jim Courier and Stefan Edberg - have won 21 of the last 30 Grand Slam titles on the men's tour, and few of their contemporaries have been able to squeeze into the spotlight.

Yevgeny Kafelnikov won the French Open this year, and how many of us could pick him out of a police lineup?

Wimbledon is a larger platform, and can launch a player into instant stardom. Becker won his first title at the All-England Club at 17, and arrived at the ATP as a full-blown superstar. Flory hopes the next Wimbledon champion can create a similar stir.

''I think if Washington wins, that's a role model for a lot of black kids who are maybe thinking about other sports,'' Flory said. ''It might encourage them to go into tennis.

''Krajicek would have a novelty factor. He's been here before, but nobody noticed him. He's a handsome, 6-foot-5 guy who won rather easily over Sampras.''

What a difference year makes

All four of the Wimbledon semifinalists played in the ATP last year, but only Martin survived the first round.

Stoltenberg and Washington played their opening matches on the grandstand court, and were gone before most spectators realized they had been around. Krajicek, seeded 10th, was upset by Greg Rusedski. Martin reached the third round before losing a tie-breaker to Sampras.

Today, Todd Martin is the Wimbledon favorite. He is the last seeded player (No. 13) left, and was tied with Washington at two sets apiece when rain stopped their match Friday.

''Guys like Pete (Sampras) and Andre (Agassi), they're always in the limelight, and deservedly so,'' Washington said. ''But heck, when you get two other guys in the semifinals of the slam, I think that shows huge things about American tennis.''

It can't hurt the ATP that both Martin and Washington are from Michigan.

''We may get a lot of calls,'' Flory said.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published July 6, 1996.